The Sunday Leader

Hopeful Signs Amidst The Losses

TO say that Sri Lanka’s victory over Pakistan in the final ODI was only of consolation value might be factually correct, but it’s rather an incomplete interpretation of last Sunday’s success. Admittedly, the fifth encounter was rendered inconsequential by Pakistan’s unbeatable 3/1 lead after the fourth game, and no one would’ve been unduly surprised had the visitors enlarged the eventual margin to 4/1.

That seemed the most likely outcome given the hiding Pakistan had handed Mathews’ men in three of the four previous encounters. And Sri Lanka’s win in second ODI was, after all, in essence, solely the creation of one player: opener Kusal Janith Perera, whose breathtaking 25-ball 68 it was that triggered Sri Lanka’s second-highest successful ODI chase of 288, one short of the highest ever achieved against the same opposition, six years ago in Dambulla.

Even though Perera’s heroics had slashed Sri Lanka’s 288-run victory-target to 196 in only 8.2 overs, quite some bouts of anxiety were endured before victory was finally accomplished – none more ominous than when Mathews’ men had stumbled to 159/5 in the 25th over. All but Chandimal remained of the specialist batsmen; the others were rookies Pathirana and Siriwardena, off-form all rounder Thisara Perera and bowlers Malinga and Pradeep. To win from such a precarious situation was largely due to contributions from the rookies and Chandimal’s common sense batting. Otherwise, the end might’ve been different. Sri Lanka finally fell over the line, winning by two wickets in the 49th over.

Contrastingly, all of Pakistan’s wins approaching the final encounter had been by far more emphatic: the first by 6 wkts, overhauling the 259-run target in the 46th over; after conceding the second encounter, the visitors struck back with a vengeance in the third, winning by a whopping 135 runs, bundling out the home team for 181 in the 41st over, and then carried that momentum into the series-clinching fourth ODI, knocking off the required 257 in only the 41st over to win by 7 wkts..

So the logical prediction for the final meeting was that Pakistan would parcel away a 4/1 series win to the historians, their first here in more years than one cares to count. Yet, as things turned out, the story was vastly different: In turning the tables on the Pakistanis, Mathews’ men had actually chalked up the series’ most comprehensive win – by a monstrous 165-run margin, dismissing the visitors for 203, their lowest in the series, as early as in the 39th. over.

Lest you think Pakistan’s endeavour here was less intense, given that they had already pocketed the series, lend an ear to the Pakistani skipper. He admitted that, although the importance of the final game had diminished to one of only academic interest, their resolve to win it was just as strong as it had been for the games before, “(but) Sri Lanka batted so well, there’s was little we could do (to contain them). That’s where we lost it.’’

And from a Sri Lankan perspective, there was far greater dignity in conceding the series 2/3 than what looked the more plausible margin of 1/4. The three-Test series too was lost by a margin of one, so our final series’ report card doesn’t read too badly for a team in the throes of rebuilding. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it’s hardly been six months since the pillars of our cricket, Jayewardene and Sangakkara, retired; the former from the game and the latter, from the one-day version.  It would’ve been nice if Sri Lanka had won the two-match T20 series, but that’s now not possible having lost the first, Thursday. If it ends all square tonight that would represent an improvement, and 0/2 loss can’t make any worse the report as written at the end of the Test and ODI series.

It has to be said though, the series’ statistics reflect modest gains for a team in transition; the more telling benefits are less visible. How Mathews’ team, defeated and dejected up until last Sunday , was able to mutate into such a ruthlessly combative machine in the final encounter is remarkable – and dispels encroaching fears of a lack of capable talent to fill the void left by the departing elders.

There were drastic changes effected in the team for the final ODI; clearly a move to experiment with new combinations. Significantly, the eleven didn’t include any debutantes; so it wasn’t about an exploration of new talent in an ODI of no consequence.

The point to make here is that the incredible turn round within the space of a week was brought about by the same players that had performed less impressively in previous games of this series.  But this time round, however, it was a case of the hunted turning the hunter, as Mathews’ men set upon the once supremely dominant Pakistanis. The home team’s dominance was so commanding that you had to pinch yourself to believe that what was unfolding before you was real.

A refreshing change of attitude in Mathews’ team was recognizable, assertiveness replacing resignation. It seemed that they had shed an invisible millstone that had long weighed them down and expressed themselves with a sense of freedom previously absent. It is difficult to put a finger on the reason for this apparent new-found spirit, but given that the eleven that overwhelmed the visitors was pretty much a cannibalised outfit, to the extent of excluding Malinga, it is excusable to suspect that the “millstone’’ might’ve been among those who were on the bench last Sunday. How else can you explain performances of a team that had shown only modest strength touching such peaks of perfection Sunday– other than saying the team had been relieved of some irksome mental baggage.

The visible benefits of Sunday’s triumph are, however, easier to explain. The most notable was the change in opener Kusal Perera’s approach. He tempered his unbridled desire to knock the cover off the ball, every delivery he faced, replacing impetuosity with discretion. This is not to say, he chose to subdue his wonderful aggressive instincts. Rather, he wisely let loose those instincts only when the opportunity presented itself, and it did thirteen times Sunday; he smacked nine of those opportunities to the boundary, and the other four were hoisted for sixes. Given his new approach, the Pakistani bowlers found Perera unconquerable – and his eventual dismissal came in the only manner possible: run out.

In the previous match he was out, second ball; the riot act no doubt was read out by management. Perhaps, he was told a search might have to be made  for another opener if he doesn’t rein in his cavalier ways – a warning not to be taken lightly in the backdrop of Malinga’s exclusion from last Sunday’s ODI.

Much of our cricket’s successes post 1996 was largely inspired by the deeds of the redoubtable opener Sanath Jayasuriya. Upon entering the big league, Perera, whose hero was Jayasuriya, was hailed as the next Master Blaster. Perhaps, he was in a hurry to emulate his hero, forgetting that the 1996 World Cup legend had also acquired the longevity-enabling skills and so wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan, which Perera increasingly was looking like. But he clearly mended his ways Sunday, and thus raises hope of Sri Lanka cricket re-visiting the glory days when Jayasuriya ruled the roost.

But re-living those good times is not only about Perera emerging a reincarnate of Jayasuriya. Two batsmen, Thirimanne and Chandimal, on whom much has been invested on in the hope they would fill the boots of Jayewardene and Sangakkara might not have delivered on their promise. But without the presence of the legendary duo,  Thirimanne and Chandimal, one perceives, approach their tasks with a greater sense of responsibility. The sort of contributions the legends used to consistently make might’ve eluded the youngsters in this series, but they can hardly be said to have been failures.

Their exclusion from the T20 squad is a mite unkind, especially at this point when the duo seems to be consolidating their young careers. Obviously, they’ll be disappointed over their T20 exclusions, but conversely it can only enhance their mental toughness as they resolve, which surely they will, to regain their places in the country’s T20 team. Being stronger of mind is essential, as the selectors have made it plainly clear their job’s credo: a player is only as good as his last innings. That wasn’t the case with previous selectors, who worked on the theory that incentives in the form of captaincy/deputy might spur players and so hasten a successful transition. Where the carrot failed, will the stick succeed?

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