Sri Lanka has grown as a team over the course of the tournament, and looks settled and well-balanced
What a difference a few wins make. How much easier does life get once you have points on the board. Look no further than the Sri Lankan team, its every movement in this tournament mirrored by the unconsciously expressive Mahela Jayawardena.
In the lead-up to the competition, Jayawardena was fidgety and aloof, to the point of being defensive when asked about the weight of expectations he and his team were operating under. In the first round of competition, he set up an appropriate atmosphere so that his team could ease itself into the competition.
There was scope for a bit of tinkering, and Dilshan Munaweera was given a go at the top of the order to see if he could magically bridge the enormous gap between domestic and international cricket. When that did not happen, and with no recrimination, Jayawardena assumed his rightful place at the top of the order. In that phase, there was scope also to welcome Ajantha Mendis back to the fold, and try and give Akila Dananjaya a go, a move foiled by the Sooriyawewa rains.
Through it all, as Sri Lanka has grown as a team – and it’s a by-product of the fickle nature of Twenty20 cricket that it was even possible to consider a situation where Sri Lanka did not advance – the manner in which the country has responded to its beloved team has changed. Sri Lanka is a cricket-mad country, but unlike fans from some other Asian countries, those that watch cricket here are neither celebrity obsessed nor delusional about their team.
The media here reflects this, often excessively critical, and Jayawardena is repeatedly forced to answer the kind of questions that Mahendra Singh Dhoni would never face. But, you sense, that the tide has turned, with Jayawardena’s men being one win against England away from a place in the semi-finals and a return to their fortress, the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
As the tournament has gone by, the crowds at the grounds have swelled, and now, each time Sri Lanka takes the field, it’s backed by 35,000 vociferous spectators whose enthusiastic cheering is cleverly orchestrated by the papare bands that have a finger on the pulse of the game. Darren Sammy, West Indies’ captain, felt the full effect of this on Saturday.
“That’s the wonderful thing for Sri Lanka playing at home,” said Sammy. “The way the crowd are, it’s like having a 12th man. When you’re batting, you feel like it’s three guys in the middle, and on the field the crowd buzzes you and gives you that extra boost, extra energy. As a team, this helps you in the tight moments, it gives you a lift when things are tough.”
Jayawardena, who has insisted all tournament that his team should try and enjoy the atmosphere and occasion of playing in a world event at home, now sounds like he actually believes this is possible. What once was a source of extra pressure had now become an inspiration.
“We have enjoyed having the crowd behind us, and that’s part of the charm of playing at home,” said Jayawardena. “You guys have seen how we play our cricket. The crowd enjoys themselves, with the music and everything. All our players have grown up playing their games in this atmosphere, right from the Big Match in school cricket. In one way, it might be bit of added pressure, but that’s not how we look at it.”
Against England, expect a dry pitch to further slow down and work to Sri Lanka’s advantage. While the purchase that you normally expect from pitches in this part of the world hasn’t really been prevalent where Sri Lanka has played its matches, in Hambantota and Pallekele, the wear and tear of constant cricket might’ve done the job.
Sri Lanka could be tempted to bring back Akila Dananjaya, who Jayawardena said was desperate to play. If Dananjaya’s hairline fracture of the cheekbone improves sufficiently, England might have to contend with skilled, accurate, deceptive slow bowling on a tired pitch, with home fans baying for blood.
Eoin Morgan and Luke Wright have done a fine job of keeping the ghosts of the Premadasa game against India at bay, but it won’t take long for Kumar Sangakkara, chirping behind the stumps, to summon them when the time is right.