Sri Lanka will enter unfamiliar territory this week as they go into the ICC Men's T20 World Cup 2021 at the First Round stage, seeking qualification for the Super 12. But having to take the long way to T20 World Cup glory could prove the perfect opportunity for a new generation of Sri Lankan stars to make their names.
It has undoubtedly been a transitional period for Sri Lanka over the past few years. Since the 2015 Cricket World Cup they've seen the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Rangana Herath, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Thisara Perera retire. Given all seven features in the T20 World Cup winning side of 2014, that's a list of departures any nation would struggle to adjust to.
This month, they have the chance to show the world that the transitional phase is coming to an end and that they are ready to conquer cricket again.
Ahead of their opening game against Namibia on 18 October, we take a look at their chances at the World Cup.
Cricket World Cup runners up in 2007 and 2011, T20 World Cup finalists in 2012 and winners in 2014, Sri Lanka have had a leaner of time of it of late. That's why they find themselves in the First Round of the T20 World Cup rather than as automatic qualifiers for the Super 12 stage.
T20I cricket has not been kind to them lately, with the islanders suffering the most losses of any team in the shortest format of the game since the last T20 World Cup in 2016. The challenge of finding their feet at this edition has not been made easier by the year-long suspensions being served by Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Mendis and Danushka Gunathilaka for breaching the bio-secure bubble in England.
But the absence of three suspended experienced players can be looked at as another opportunity for Sri Lanka's youngsters to step up on the big stage and make themselves known. Indeed, some of them have already started to seize their opportunity.
There's 24-year-old Charith Asalanka, who was Player of the Series in Sri Lanka's recent ODI series win over South Africa. There's Avishka Fernando, who has averaged 119.5 across Sri Lanka's four practice matches in the lead-up to the tournament. There's Kamindu Mendis, who can bowl with both arms and hit the ball a long way, and seamer Chamika Karunaratne who can also hit the ball a long way. There has also been the return to the fray for proven performers like Dinesh Chandimal and Kusal Perera, making an experienced core alongside captain Dasun Shana, all-rounder Dhananjaya De Silva and speedster Dushmantha Chameera.
On top of all that, the Sri Lankans have the services of Wanindu Hasaranga, who sits second on the MRF Tyres ICC T20I bowling rankings. Hasaranga is averaging 13.15 with the ball in T20Is this year while leaking just 5.59 runs per over. There's not a team in the world looking forward to facing him.
Quite simply, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about what this Sri Lankan team will bring to the table.
It must be remembered that the T20 World Cup has always been Sri Lanka's happy place. Their 22 Men's T20 World Cup match wins are the most of any nation in the tournament's history. They have literally been the team to beat with more appearances in the Final than any nation.
The upcoming edition of the tournament in Oman and UAE is Sri Lanka's chance to re-emerge as a T20I force to be marvelled.
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Generational forces combine: Ireland
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From heartbreak to elation: Scotland
Rediscovering World Cup highs: Netherlands
An 18-year absence ended: Namibia
Dasun Shanaka (captain), Kusal Janith Perera, Dinesh Chandimal, Dhananjaya De Silva, Pathum Nissanka, Charith Asalanka, Avishka Fernando, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Chamika Karunaratne, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dushmantha Chameera, Lahiru Kumara, Maheesh Theekshana, Akila Dananjaya, Binura Fernando.
18 Oct - v Namibia
20 Oct - v Ireland
22 Oct - v Netherlands
Best finish: Champions - 2014
Sri Lanka broke their World Cup Final jinx at the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2014. Having fallen short at the final hurdle in the 2007 Cricket World Cup, 2010 T20 World Cup, 2011 Cricket World Cup and 2012 T20 World Cup, the Malinga-led side beat India by six wickets to be crowned T20 World Champions at Dhaka.
The heroes with the bat, Sangakkara and Jayawardene, bid adieu to T20Is in style, hoisted on their teammates’ shoulders and with the trophy in their hands.
In the inaugural edition, Sri Lanka made it to the Super 8s but finished third and failed to make it to the semis. In 2010, they qualified for the final four but lost to eventual champions England. The 2016 edition was a disappointing one as they crashed out in the group stages and failed to defend the title that they won in 2014.
Look out for
Maheesh Theekshana is among the latest list of sensations to come out of Sri Lankan cricket this year. Picking a wicket off his first ball in international cricket, Theekshana finished with a four-for in the final ODI against South Africa as Sri Lanka wrapped up a rare ODI series win, their first in over seven years against a top-five ranked team.
With an action very similar to that of Ajantha Mendis, Theekshana was picked up by Jaffna Stallions in the inaugural edition of the Lanka Premier League (LPL) upon the insistence of Thisara Perera. In the 26 T20 games that he has played so far, Theekshana has picked up 22 wickets at an average of 23.50, giving away just 5.68 runs per over.
Though his T20I numbers in three games may not be as impressive, Theekshana’s mystery spin could be Sri Lanka’s secret weapon, come the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup.
For someone who made his international debut in 2019 and has played only 25 T20Is, Wanindu Hasaranga has quickly become Sri Lanka’s most important player in the shortest format of the game.
Currently ranked second in the MRF Tyers ICC T20I rankings for bowlers, Hasaranga is Shanaka’s go-to player when the going gets tough. In 25 games so far, the right arm wrist spinner has picked up 36 wickets at an average of 15.47 with an economy of just 6.57.
Hasaranga is also a very capable bat, averaging 17.52 at a strike rate of 131.34 in T20 cricket. He has two fifties to his name as well, with a high score of 74. His batting numbers at the international stage may not be as impressive yet, but he has shown a glimpse of what he can do with his 44 off 34 against West Indies last year.
If Sri Lanka are to get out of the First Round of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, Hasaranga will have a crucial role to play in it.
Ireland - 20 October
Ireland will perhaps be Sri Lanka’s strongest challenge in the First Round of the T20 World Cup. The two teams have clashed only once before in T20Is where Sri Lanka beat Ireland in a closely contested match in the 2009 Men’s T20 World Cup.
However, Ireland have come a long way since and could be a major roadblock in Sri Lanka’s bid to qualify for the Super 12 stages.
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