Asia Cup: Sri Lanka search for their lost spark


Unjust it may be but Sri Lanka have been mostly consigned to being a third wheel behind India and Pakistan in the context of cricket in the subcontinent. There was a slight deviation from the norm in the 2000s when they managed to build on their 1996 ODI World Cup triumph to morph into as formidable a force as their more high-profile neighbours. Winning the 2014 T20 World Cup aside, they finished runners-up in the 2007 and 2011 50-over World Cups as well as the 2009 and 2012 T20 World Cups, momentarily acquiring the undesirable tag of perennial bridesmaids.

If Sri Lanka could fight for the title again this year, it would ensure that the oddity of the Asia Cup never having an India-Pakistan final continues.

While those what-if moments would have irked them no end back then, they would merrily take making it that far in the current scenario. Since 2011 – when they were only outdone by the poise of MS Dhoni and the pugnacity of Gautam Gambhir in the final – they have not gotten remotely close to challenging for the 50-over crown. A comprehensive quarter-final defeat in 2015 was followed by a group-stage exit in 2019.

That there’s been a gradual decline is evident from the fact they had to navigate a qualifying campaign in Zimbabwe to earn the right to take their place among the ten teams competing in this year’s World Cup in India. The circuitous route to India was a result of finishing outside the top eight in the ODI Super League in the 2020 to 2022/23 qualification cycle.

It is against this backdrop that they head into the Asia Cup beginning on Wednesday. They are defending champions alright but a mountain of problems leaves them with plenty to ponder over. The biggest of them all is the mounting injury list that may make India – ravaged by it themselves until recently – feel like they are doing a fine job. Pacers Dushmantha Chameera and Dilshan Madushanka have already been ruled out of the tournament while Lahiru Kumara is doubtful too.

Leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga has also suffered a thigh strain that is likely to keep him out of the first few matches if not the entire tournament. There’s trouble in the batting department too, with Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando contracting Covid-19.

Off the field, allegations of corruption in the administration of Sri Lankan cricket continue to swirl. Just last week, urban development minister Prasanna Ranatunga, the younger brother of Arjuna who led them to victory in 1996, launched a scathing attack on Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC). “The World Cup victory was the biggest curse for our cricket. Money started flowing to the cricket board after 1996 and with that came those who wanted to steal,” he told Parliament.

These allegations come in the wake of reports that SLC officials misused funds to pay for the travel of their family and friends for the T20 World Cup in Australia last year; one where their failure to get out of the group was exacerbated by charges of sexual assault against batter Danushka Gunathilaka. Accusations of financial impropriety among officials aren’t new, of course, but it doesn’t help a team scrambling in search of positivity.

And yet, if there’s a glimmer of hope for five-time winners of the Asia Cup (50-over format), it has to do with a young bowling attack that is characteristically Sri Lankan. In Matheesha Pathirana, they have a 20-year-old pacer who slings his right arm to deliver yorkers with almost the same spite as Lasith Malinga. And in Maheesh Theekshana, they have a 23-year-old mystery spinner who no batter is yet to get a grip on. They enjoyed breakthrough IPL campaigns this year for champions Chennai Super Kings, Pathirana starring with 19 scalps in 12 matches and Theekshana contributing 11 wickets in 13 games.

If they can build on the confidence derived from gaining MS Dhoni’s trust at CSK, they could make quite an impression at the World Cup too. Provided those on the injury list also return in time for the World Cup starting on October 5, there’s certainly enough there for Dasun Shanaka’s team to at least throw some predictions out of kilter. Which is what they did by beating India in the Super 4 stage of last year’s Asia Cup to set up a final with Pakistan.

If they could fight for the title again this year, it would ensure that the oddity of the Asia Cup never having an India-Pakistan final continues. It would also be a small step towards reigniting some of their lost spark and bringing attention back onto them ahead of a World Cup that’s being held closer home.


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