The 2011 World Cup final between Sri Lanka and India will remain a conspiracy theorists’ beehive, a cricket fan’s conundrum, more than any of the above it will always remain a wound that would fail to heal and hurt the same even after decades.
On the 2nd of April this year during the height of lockdown, the game was re telecast on Star Sports. Despite being a cricket tragic who would happily wake up in the middle of the night to watch a dull boring test match in the opposite corner of the world and then go about the following day without any regret, I normally find it impossible to sit through even an extended highlight package of any form of cricket. On seeing the advertisement I made a note on calendar to watch this re telecast. I was curious to see why Dilshan and Tharanga couldnt get off to a decent start?, why couldn’t Mahela and Sanga tick the scoreboard in the middle overs as they would normally do?, Why did our middle order collapse when it mattered the most?, why did we let Gambhir and Kohli off the hook after that roaring start?, There were so many “Why?s” for which I was desperate to find answers even after nine long years. When that Dhoni Six was replayed almost a decade later,the remorse was real. The pain was phenomenal. The emptiness seemed to be eternal. Time didn’t seem to heal this wound. I thought to myself that it was just for me, probably not for others who have better things in life than thinking and writing about a game that happened a decade earlier. At least that’s what I thought to myself until I saw the backlash the recent match fixing allegations created. The feeling is universal, it hurts every Sri Lankan fan to date. It hurts even more to think that some consider foul play involved.
Now let’s get to the topic. Was it fixed or not? That will be a question that will never reach consensus. Even though I believe it was not influenced,there is still a conspiracy theorist within me who would pose the question ” why did the shoulders drop when in a position of strength?, why was the usual energy lacking in Sangakkara long before the game was gone?”. These are few things I could vividly remember from the game. Even in the repeat telecast they were obvious. May be it was just that the dew was starting to fall, may be it was just that the team realized Murali was nowhere near his best, may be the team realized the bowling lacked bite in the given conditions. Those are speculations which will never find a concrete answer. Nevertheless what can cricketing logic unravel about the common concerns regarding selection, toss and the flow of play?.
Cricketing logic do dispel the myths that surround this monumental game, if you approach it with a rational mind. There have been so many misinterpretations, many of which were swept aside by past cricketers during this lockdown period through various media. This article intends to discuss why it is irrational to think the game was fixed.
To start off, momentum plays a key role in any campaign. Going into the final India were coming off two high pressure games which they won from positions they could have lost against Australia and Pakistan. Against Australia when Dhoni departed leaving a run ball chase to Yuvraj and Raina it was anybody’s game. The pair saw India home. At Mohali in the Semis a middle order collapse left India reeling. Raina pulled them out into safe waters followed up by a clinical bowling effort. Those were to high octane games where India earned their wins. Their batting line up was tested, the bowlers too had to deliver under pressure. India were a battle hardened unit functioning as a well oiled machine. They had massive momentum. Sri Lanka’s would have wished India were in cloud nine walking complacently into the finals. With a leader like Dhoni it was nevergoing to happen. An encore of 1996 was not on the cards
Sri Lanka on the other hand faced the English and Kiwis on dust bowls in Colombo . Conditions tailor made for Sri Lanka. Kiwis and the English were nowhere close to India. Kiwis upsetting proteas in hindsight deprived us of a challenging battle in the Semis which may have held us in good stead for the finals. Sri Lanka romped home against England, impressive as it by ten wickets. But the reality was that the batting line up wasn’t tested. The Kiwi game too wasn’t different. Most of the work was done by the top order until an unnecessary middle order collapse infused some tension till Mathews ensured a national calamity was avoided. But this phase would have a significant impact in the run up to the finals as we would see later
It was a tournament where you had to get into the knock outs and win three on the trot to be champions. It wasn’t Sri Lanka’s fault that they had it easy. But in reality the Indian juggernut had gained momentum. Momentum makes things happen. Momentum is what makes magic happen. It’s the belief teams have in themselves that they can win from any position. India had done it twice whereas Sri Lanka weren’t forced into such situations. The teams were equally matched make no mistake about it. But the magical momentum was with India. Sri Lanka had to punch above their weights to have a favorable outcome. However the injury to Mathews in the semis dealt a killer blow, not only to the balance of the team but to Sri Lankan chances as well. This was a major factor deciding the composition of the team for the finals.
Sri Lanka have been traditionally a team which follows the principle of ” don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”. There have been many such instances in the years prior where passengers have been carried just to go with the winning team. In this context four changes going into the final was a recipe made for controversy. However when looking at those changes from a cricketing perspective, they made absolute sense. Mumbai and Colombo were entirely different tracks. While Colombo had spin Mumbai was more a batsman’s paradise with bounce on offer.
With Mathews out Thisara was obviously the like for like replacement despite being new in the side. Thisara was more of a bowling allrounder who had a decent record against India. He had infact dished out a five wicket haul in Dambulla in 2010 against the same opponent.
Further Sri Lanka had gone in with three frontline spinners in the semis given the weakness of the Kiwis. Against India it was obvious, one of them had to be replaced by a fast bowler. A three pronged spin attack was never an option against India .Kulasekera was Sri Lanka’s reliable new ball bowler by then who had held the number one rankings in ODIs as well. Kulasekara instead of Herath , over Dilhara was a no brainer because Dilhara wasn’t comfortable opening the bowling throughout his career.
However the change that caught the attention of many and gave rise to speculations was Randiv over Ajantha Mendis. As irrational as it may sound many wouldn’t remember Randiv was far better against India in this period compared to Mendis. After his initial burst to fame in 2008/09 Mendis was decoded by India and Pakistan and wasnt a threat anymore. This is backed by numbers. In the years 2009/10 Mendis had played 10 games against India and had picked 10 wickets at an average of over 50 and an economy over 5.7. Randiv on the contrary had played 13 games picked up 12 wickets at an economy of 4.6 and an average of roughly 45. Anybody who followed the game at that time would agree Randiv was by far the best choice against India with an impressive track record. His height and bounce on the Mumbai track was an added advantage. As much as it may look fishy bringing in a player from outside the squad this selection made absolute sense in cricketing terms. Mendis was a marvel against mediocre teams but mediocre against the masters of spin. It is also imperative to note,Hearth on the other hand had played only a solitary ODI against India in that period in 2010 and wasn’t an established bowler.
The final swap of Chamara Kapugedera for Chamara Silva was one made out of desperation. Silva’s painstakingly laborious 13 off 25 in the semis when the game was all but taken was good enough reason to go for Kapugedera as Silva hadn’t found his form throughout the series. This change was in fact a proactive move that was quite uncommon in Sri Lankan selection processes back then and even now.
In hindsight when one contextually interprets the changes that were made with cricketing rationale it isn’t as glaring as it may seem on the surface. Even without Angelo’s injury inevitably Sri Lanka would have made three changes. This flux in team composition led to another controversial decision. The toss.
The reality regarding the toss was that the team was divided on what to do on winning the toss. Murali has openly said Sri Lanka should have chased. Sangakkara on the other hand has rationalized his choice in many interactions on social media during this lock down. However if we deep dive into the tournament proceedings prior to that,there are few important considerations which provide insight into this decsion.
The only instances where India failed to win games in that tournament were when they batted first. In both instances against the English in Bengaluru and Proteas in Nagpur the Indian middle order had collapsed following fabulous starts. Yet they posted very competitive scores on both instances. However the weakness in the bowling was exposed during those defenses. Apart from Harbhajan and Zaheer the rest were vulnerable. This should have been a good enough reason for Sri Lanka to chase. However in the game against Pakistan and also against New Zealand in the semis the Lankan middle order did not look convincing. With Angleo’s absence,the middle order was brittle to say the least. The middle order had not done anything of note in the lead up to mount a solid case for chasing. Sri Lanka struggling to score the last 60 runs losing 5 wickets in the semis was a glaring example of how undercooked the middle order was. Samaraweera at five and Kapugedera at six were too much of a chance to fancy a chase.It was a matter of balancing between trying to exploit the weakness of the opponent while covering our weakness. It was a delicate balance.
Nevertheless bowling was Sri Lanka’s strong suite. With Malinga and Murali in the attack it was quite logical to have chosen to defend.
The other factor to consider was the dew. Though there was dew in the group game against the kiwis, Sri Lanka adhered to the age old principle of leaving the uncontrollable out of the equation. Dew belonged to that category and it was quite right not to base the decision on an uncontrollable. Nevertheless in retrospect it may seem foolish to have ignored the dew threat but logically in the lead up to the final Sri Lanka took the rational path. The threat of chancing the dew was better than risking a weak middle order.
From the above it’s quite obvious that most of the glaring facts that grab the attention were in fact quite rational and make cricketing sense. These are valid enough to dispel the conspiracy theories that have floated around forever.
It may be hard for the common fan to accept that a score as much as 274 was inadequate. But in reality it was just a par score. The dynamic opening pair of Tharanga and Dilshan struggled to get off to the fliers they were used to. Mahela and Sangakkara though managing to forge a partnership were throttled by the Indian spinners. It was Thisara’s cameo and Mahela’s late surge that propelled the score to a respectable level. Malinga’s brilliance at the onset dealt two massive blows which sky rocketed Lankan hopes. But the reality was that except may be for the last 10 overs in Sri Lankan innings and the first 10 overs of the Indian innings the rest of the game was dominated by India. They were never out of it at any point. Both Gamhir and Kohli stitched a decent partnership at a decent rate from where Dhoni closed the game. It was truly an all round performance by the Indian team. (This is supported by impact index analyses of the final which have been published. Since that statistical analysis is beyond the scope of this article it will not be dealt with. Anyone interested can access them on the @Crcviznalaytics twitter handle on 02nd of April 2020)
It’s hard for the Sri Lankan fans to accept it. But the reality is the better team won on the day. The Indians showed up way better than we did. Whilst the openers struggled even the inconsistent Sreesanth stuck to his plans. While Malings dealt two telling blows the rest could not accentuate that pressure.
The answer to all the questions hurting us eternally is the fact that on cricketing terms the better team prevailed. We were good, yet not good enough. There was no need for foul play to influence the end result. In hindsight it was a deserved result too. The trajectories of both nations which once shared a great rivalry has diverged ever since. India went north and Sri Lanka went south. A win in 2011 wouldnt have made a difference at all. In fact it’s time for us to move on from a mythical bubble and come to terms with reality.
If those in power ask themselves why we have come to where we have now than digging into what happened on that April 2nd night, Sri Lankan cricket will garner some hope and come back to life, holding the game that gives millions many reasons to smile in good health.
Afterall the common cricket fan would any day happily accept that we fought and lost than we lost through fixing. Reality hurts but if the alternate explanation were to be the truth it would instantly kill the love this beautiful game. For me there are enough and more cricketing rationale to explain the unusual happenings than add fuel to the burning fire of conspiracy theories. The above reasons helped me put the conspiracy theorist within me. I hope it does help to put the one inside your head to sleep as well.