A Reminder Of Life After Godda

BEING tagged favourites is nice but dangerous, just ask Sri Lanka’s just-resigned cricket captain Angelo Mathews. The world of course now know what became of his prediction to take the ODI series against Zimbabwe five-zero; the horrible inaccuracy of which must pass into folklore as one of game’s biggest gaffes.

Prior to the start of the series, though, Mathews’ prediction sounded anything but an empty boast. Given that Sri Lanka had won 40 of the 50 previous encounters between the two countries, and the recent series being at home where the hosts have never lost to the guests, a whitewash by Sri Lanka was not quite such an impractical proposition. Turns out it was; the unexpected 2-3 loss leaving the skipper with “one of the lowest points in my career’’ and a portion of humble pie “difficult to swallow.’’ The upshot: a red-faced Mathews upped and left the captaincy job, sadly.

If there’s any good to be derived from Sri Lanka cricket’s saddest day yet, is that it issues a cautionary message to Sri Lanka’s Davis Cup squad: don’t assume anything in your bid for Group 2 promotion; tomorrow on SLTA’s courts in leafy Green Path. Like the cricketers were on the eve of the ODI series, our Davis Cup team too are firm favourites to finish no.1 in the nine-nation competition – and win promotion. But as said before, its best captain Rohan de Silva’s men shed any presumptions they might harbour, lest they want to risk inviting Mathews’ present state of depression.

It has to be said that there’s more than one good reason why Sri Lanka is worthy of the favourites billing. Placed no.78 in the ITF’s hierarchical order, the island is ranked the highest among the nine competing Group 3 countries; Lebanon is next best, at no. 88, trailed by Malaysia, at 89. By virtue of its superior ranking, Sri Lanka rightly is nominated the top seed, whilst Lebanon, the bottom seed.

But Sri Lanka’s top seed status isn’t as significant a reason for according it the favourites’ role as the five consecutive years, 2012- ’16, it spent in Group 2, a length of time at the superior level that the other eight challengers can’t match. Malaysia was a Group 2 member for just one year before descending to Group 3 this year. Lebanon, I am told, has been in Group 2 for longer than Malaysia, but each time the Lebanese’s relegation came as swiftly as their promotion; in other words, the middle-east country’s Group 2 tenancy could never be extended to a second successive year.  As well, it is pretty much a tradition that a team demoted from Group 2 one year emerges at the top of Group 3 next year – and promptly wins promotion, a process that has been made virtual custom by the superior experience garnered by the demoted team at a higher level in the year before.

It’s not only history that favours Sri Lanka’s promotion bid; the rules of the draw too. With nine countries in the competition, two groups of equal number are obviously not possible. So it’ll have to be one group of five and the other of four – and the rules of the tie gives the top seed the benefit of a place in the lesser crowded group. “The only benefit of playing in the group of four is that it gives us a day off, which is better than playing all seven days (of the tie),’’ says Harshana Godamanna, the squad’s senior most player and torchbearer of the country’s promotion bid. “But, of course, to make the rest day meaningful we’d have to win every set and match either side of the break – so that our bid for promotion is not left to chance.’’ His mention of winning even “every set’’ is not the manner of his speaking. With Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Malaysia in the race for the two Group 2 promotion slots, Godamanna is mindful that winning- consistency has to be established start to finish; dropping even a set means a desertion of consistency, the regaining of which is a chancy business – and so, puts promotion chances at risk.

Add the benefits of playing in home conditions before home supporters, and naturally, Sri Lanka is the team to beat. But team captain Rohan de Silva, not one given to making judgements solely on evidence of history and statistics, takes a more pragmatic view. “It is nice to be top seed and be tagged the favourites, but don’t forget these ‘paper qualifications’ exert great expectations and greater pressure on players’’ says de Silva, “… and this can have a debilitating affect, especially playing amidst home supporters. So rather than think about fulfilling the expectations of favourites, it is prudent to set minds on winning the set at hand and then the match – and if that’s done well, Group 2 promotion will look after itself.’’

de Silva’s memory is sound. He hasn’t forgotten that our home-tie record doesn’t make for impressive reading as the history of our away-ties does. Of the five Group 2 home ties played over the last five years, all but one were lost, the solitary victory being over Lebanon in the 2015 tie. By contrast, four of the five away-ties in the same period ended in triumph; the fifth was conceded to Indonesia last year. The conclusion: Sri Lanka is more comfortable playing overseas than in their own backyard. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to comprehend that the unequal gains from home and away ties has much to do with different pressures brought on by different locations.

The home-tie hoodoo, de Silva believes is a thing of the past. “Losing at home was the outcome of the players’ state of mind. But after the win over Lebanon in Colombo in 2015, the players have become stronger of mind to overcome the pressures of playing at home. The two players who contributed most to the 2015 success were Godda and Sharmal (Dissanayake) – and having the duo as our no.1 and 2 singles players this time round is reassuring,’’ said de Silva. “There’s a more immediate reason why playing at home shouldn’t be a worry – that is, the experience three of our four Davis Cup players have gained from playing in the three-leg Futures competition in Colombo (over the past three weeks).’’

Not only did Godamanna, Dissanayake and Yasitha de Silva glean valuable experience playing before home audience in one of more of the three Futures against top class opposition, the trio also achieved some historic successes: Dissanayake picked up his first ATP ranking points for the year and de Silva, his first ever points in the pro circuit; whilst Godamanna advanced to the semi finals of the Singles and Doubles, in partnership with Dissanayake. “For a home-tie, it is fair to say the preparations have been far more thorough than any undertaken before,’’ said captain Rohan de Silva.

But de Silva, ever the pragmatist, keeps optimism on a tight rein. “The experience and successes gathered in the Futures in the days approaching the Davis Cup tie no doubt provides a leg-up to the squad’s chances. But then you shouldn’t forget that many of our (Davis Cup) rivals too have gained experience from the (Colombo) Futures – and for the same reason as our players: to prepare for the tie,’’ says de Silva, “many rival (Davis Cup) players have been playing in Colombo close to a month – so it is wise to not bank too much on home advantage.’’

“Godda’s five wins, including one in the doubles, in the recent Futures; Sharmal’s three wins and Yasitha’s one win show they aren’t overawed by opponents with superior ATP rankings,’’ said Rohan de Silva. “That point was made more vividly some three years ago when Godda defeated (Pakistani) Qureshi (singles no.8 in 2011 and currently a top-25 doubles player) in a Group 2 tie in Colombo. ’’

Should Sri Lanka secure Group 2 promotion, as is the promise, the tie’s bottom line won’t be any different to that of our previous successes: but for Godamanna, Group 2 might never have been.

The country’s most successful Davis Cup player this century so far, spoke last week of tomorrow’s tie being possibly his last. Now 31, tennis has become not so much enjoyment as hard labour. “I’ll assess things after this tie and decide if I should retire,’’ he said – and then let the cat out of the bag, saying, “My own view is that, since our squad is still very young, until they mature playing in Group 3 will be helpful. That was how I reached the level I did.’’  In other words: “you’ll have to learn do without me’’. This week, might be the last we see of Harshana Godamanna.

 

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