Neither Sri Lanka nor West Indies have played their best on the way to the knockout stage; both will need to put stumbles with the bat behind them
It sounds absurd to say so, but two teams who are playing far from their best cricket will compete for the first spot in the final of the ICC World Twenty20 2014. Sri Lanka’s first outing of the tournament at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur, its semifinal against the West Indies on Thursday (April 3) could be the moment when the trend takes a decisive turn.
When you consider the fact that Australia could beat only Bangladesh and England managed to lose to the Netherlands while New Zealand and Pakistan crumbled at the first taste of the pressure of a knockout game, it becomes a touch easier to understand how teams can be underdone and inconsistent, and yet make the semifinal of a global event.
The West Indies’ journey to the semifinal has been a riveting rollercoaster. Chris Gayle, who has proven himself in T20 teams from Bangalore to Barisal and Western Australia to Worcestershire, with several other stops thrown in, has largely been a nonstarter so far. To be fair to opposition bowlers, especially spinners, the homework on Gayle has been rock solid, but it is not as though video analysis was recently invented. For years people have studied Gayle, probing for weakness with which to breach his defences and searching for lines of defence that might tie him down, with little success. At this tournament though, the implementation of plans has been spot on, and it is Gayle who is having to do the introspection.
The second big gun for the West Indies, Marlon Samuels, plays an unusual brand of cricket, one that is fraught with danger in this format. Samuels begins slowly, so painfully slowly that it is not merely the fours and sixes that he cuts out, but even stops looking for ones and twos at times. That he can flip a switch very quickly once he is sure he has the measure of conditions is a matter of comfort, but there’s always the risk of his innings being cut down before he can begin to launch.
With the lynchpins of the batting not firing, and the talismanic Kieron Pollard missing though injury, West Indies has been forced to scramble to stay in the competition in a format currently best suited to its cricket. James Faulkner did it a good turn by making provocative comments ahead of the encounter against Australia, firing the team up to pull out all the stops, including the Gangnam celebration. Pakistan, that wizard of spin bowling artistry, fell prey to the kind of imaginative slow bowling that every batsmen would have grown up facing on the bylanes of Lahore and Karachi.
“Team spirit is the most important thing. To get everybody together is the most important thing. We stress a lot on unity and gelling,” said Darren Sammy, and he was not trotting out pop psychology that modern coaches love so much. “That’s what we are trying to work on. It’s not always been the best, but somehow this tournament, we are doing that and once we see that passion, it automatically comes out. Once West Indies turn up, West Indies are dangerous.”
Sri Lanka know exactly how dangerous West Indies can be, especially given how patchy its own batting has been in this tournament. While scores of 165 (against South Africa) and 189 (England) show that it’s not as though there is a collective lack of form or application, it is the bowling that bailed it out in the must-win game against New Zealand, when there was only 119 on the board.
Sri Lanka’s strength, the presence of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, is also a weakness of sorts, given that the three all feature in the top four. With neither Dinesh Chandimal, the captain who missed the last game through an over-rate suspension, nor Lahiru Thirimanne as yet settled in this format, the door is open for a middle-order wobble should West Indies manage to trigger a top-order stumble. Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera are both eminently capable with the bat, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Sri Lanka will be better served by spreading its Big 3 around the line-up a touch more. The obvious way to do this would be to insert Thirimanne at No. 3, but that would mean sitting the captain out, a brave and dramatic move that most teams would not even consider.
If the stereotypes of old were to be peddled, this match-up would have been one of Sri Lankan spin vs West Indian pace, but that old order has vanished without a trace. West Indies is dependent on Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree, two of the stingiest slow bowlers in the business while Sri Lanka looks to the canny seam of Nuwan Kulasekara for the early big wicket and the laser-guided yorkers of Lasith Malinga to close out games.
While T20 cricket has the ability to throw up surprises at every turn, if the first semifinal was not decided by the bowling, irrespective of who wins, it will mean that there has been a significant lift in the batting standards. Either way, it’s going to be hard not to watch every ball in the belief and knowledge that it could be a game-changer.
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardena, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Kusal Perera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Thisara Perera, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis, Sachitra Senanayake, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Seekkuge Prasanna.
West Indies: Dwayne Smith, Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels, Lendl Simmons, Dwayne Bravo, Darren Sammy (capt), Andre Russell, Denesh Ramdin (wk), Sunil Narine, Samuel Badree, Krishmar Santokie, Ravi Rampaul, Johnson Charles, Andre Fletcher, Sheldon Cottrell.