"Is there light at the end of the tunnel?"
That is the million dollar question on every Sri Lankan cricket fans mind just a few weeks before the World cup 2015. The side that looked like ticking all the boxes for the marquee event just about four months ago, before they headed into a hastily arranged tour in the middle of a fitness programme, suddenly look like they will find it difficult to go past the last eight.
How did all this happen? It would be worth looking for answer a few months back, where Sri Lanka were before they packed up for India.
The last series, before they took a long rest and started the journey towards the expected glories of middle-earth (after taking on a faltering English side who had no hope in Sri Lanka, which was supposed to be a cake walk, and eventually it was), was supposed to be against Pakistan. On which they completed the double successfully on home soil. In the last game in that ODI series, Sri Lanka made a mockery of the Pakistan batting order by shooting them out for a mere 102 in 32 overs. The attack was led by Thisara Perera's 4 wickets. Can you imagine that? Believe it or not, it is the same Thisara unless he was abducted by aliens and was replaced by an exact clone; except for the knowledge of that perfect line and length which he was so clinical in hitting in that ODI series.
Sri Lanka's top 5 for in all those matches (except in the first game when Chandimal batted above Mathews) read; Tharanga, Dilshan, Sangakkara, Mahela and Mathews. Sri Lanka's totals were 275, 310 and the chase of 102 in 18 overs. These scores were made despite Sangakkara having a fairly poor series, on which his highest score was just 25 with 2 single figure scores. Mahela and Mathews were in sublime form while Dilshan scored a fifty in the last game. Tharanga's scores were 18(23), 27(30), 14(17). It would be fair to suggest that Sri Lanka's top order did a fair enough job collectively to produce solid runs for the team despite none of them going past a 100. The bowling was handled by Prasad, Malinga, Thisara, Herath and a bit of leg spin from Seekkuge Prasanna. After a memorable chase by Fawad Alam and Maqsood in the first game, this attack came back to take out Pakistan for 233 and 102. Tharanga played the first game in India and had a bad 20 odd out of a score of 194. He hasn't played since. There was a problem with the second opener then on.
Coming out of the series in New Zealand which they had a genuine chance of winning, especially due to their good performances in England early summer, their side's composition looks nothing like the side that was making progress towards a world cup few months ago except for their ever improving veterans. They have been chopped and changed all over the place, and are not sure who they should play in the world cup. This was quite evident in the last match they won. On which, all three bowlers who were not in the world cup squad put on a solid performance to hand Sri Lanka the victory.
What went wrong?
The selection policies have been largely inconsistent from the Sri Lankan selectors. There have been so many players tried in the last 2 years without almost any of them getting enough opportunities consistently. Even a country such as India which produces lot more domestic cricketers does not shuffle as much as Sri Lanka have done. It felt like every time someone scores a 100 or take 5 wickets in a domestic game, he has the ability to come at least for 2 or 3 games to the national side. Selectors lacked the vision to identify future talent and to stick with the players they choose. One of the prime examples is the chief selector's statement on Dimuth' selection. He has already discarded it as a bad selection. This shows it is not about the ability to identify talent, but it is shooting decisions here and there thinking that something would work. The belief in the youngsters is largely lacking by the selectors, the belief that former selectors had on players Marvan, Sanath, Mahela, Sanga etc. that these guys will perform although there are few failures here and there. Now we are left with extremely talented boys who have absolutely no idea whether they will be in the next game or not. That pressure is evident in the way they bat or bowl in the games.
However, it would not be fair to say that all this has happened due to selection blunders. Performances of the players have been rather disappointing. The best example is Thisara Perera. He is being given ample opportunities, but he is been very poor on pitches he is expected to make an impact. No selector can be blamed for that, he himself needs to get his head straight and start doing his bit for the team and for himself. Another aspect which is appalling is Sri Lanka's fielding, Lankans were a great fielding unit, especially when they play in Australia and New Zealand. Their 3 older statesmen are as agile as ever in the field. But the youngsters have been largely disappointing. Going in to the world cup this will be a huge factor for the team.
The captaincy have been rather negative too. Angelo have gone from a very strong and a competitive captain to a meek and a backward one after that India series. It was may be a too bigger emotional pounding to keep out in a few months, but if they want to win the world cup he needs to do that and should think beyond to all the good things he did in 2014 as a captain.
Among all that is mentioned above and many other issues going around in the administration, there is still hope for the boys from the emerald isle. Four of their greats will play a world cup for the last time. All those four have played and lost the last two world cup finals. Knowing them very well, world cricket would know that they will not go without a fight. Ironically with Kallis retiring, you would think there is no better cricketers who deserves a world cup than the duo of Sangakkara and Mahela.
Although Sri Lankan youngsters have been getting some harsh criticism, (sometimes for the crimes committed by external parties) fair number of them have done well away from home. If they back themselves to do well, they might still turn the tables.
As usual external odds are heavily stacked against them, to make things worse, they themselves are letting them down by not being at their best in the field. On paper, it looks like they will not make it to the last 4 for the first time since 1999.
Lankan fans will cling onto those glimmers of hope, when they sit in front of their TV sets on Valentine's Day in the hope that they can celebrate their never changing love for cricket. Their boys have carried their flame bravely since their famous victory in 96. It would not be appropriate to put it down now, at a time when the best batsmen of our era is about to play his last World cup.
Like they won it for Mahela and Sanga last year, can they win it for them for a one last time? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?