Lankan Legion & the Asia Cup 2022- Drawing parallels with England Cricket WC Team of 2019
Nope, the cricketing world erupted when Chamika Karunaratne’s near-yorker, nearly uprooted the stumps past Haris Rauf to hand over a thumping 23-run victory to Sri Lanka over the favorites, Pakistan and hand them the Asia Cup, in style.
It was a statement! They were written off, and they sprung back. It was among the most elusive comebacks, scripted in cricketing history. With its share of stories, cricketing styles and team management, akin to England’s 2019 WC triumph.
Remember, the English squad for the 2015WC biting the dust in Australia, against a spirited Bangladesh side and crashing out in the league stage? There was ridicule faced at the highest order, with experts questioning the intent of the squad. Nearly non-cricketing nations in Japan, Malaysia and Iceland too trolled the ECB.
The England Cricket team, however, redefined the way it played its game under the very same Eoin Morgan, and under the guidance of the veteran, Trevor Bayliss. A brand of cricket that spoke of intent, aggression and ownership of the team followed.
If Jason Roy couldn’t do well, then you had Jos Buttler or a Jonathan Bairstow. If your pacers and spinners couldn’t do well, you had Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali. You had gun fielders in Morgan & Stokes. The pacers complemented each other with the accuracy of Plunkett, the fierceness of Archer, the craftiness of Chris Woakes and someone always trying to bail out the team in a difficult stance. Perhaps, that’s why the gods of fortune favoured England in the controversial 2019WC final.
England has till date, been a formidable force in white-ball cricket, ever since that 2015 dip and a heartbreaking, last over loss in the 2016T20 World Cup.
The case of the Emerald Isle has been similar and yet different. A golden generation retired to the evenings- Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, T M Dilshan, Lasith Malinga and (to an extent) Thissara Pereira had all retired in a space of 4 years. Angelo Matthews, was on and off the team. No succession plan was becoming fruitful.
And yet, in 2019, Sri Lanka faced their biggest acid test- the 2019 World Cup. While they still had Lasith Malinga, experts didn’t give them any chance in a format, where every team plays the other once. Former New Zealand superstar & the current England test coach, Brendon McCullum, for instance, expected Sri Lanka to finish at the bottom of the table, predicting a win over only the West Indies. Sri Lanka, however, finished 6th in the table, just a tad short of the semifinals, and on the way produced the best of upsets over England, who would then go on to win the World Cup. The match was one of the best low-scoring thrillers of the decade, punctuated by some marvellous display of grit (Courtesy- The match predictor, giving Sri Lanka only a 4% chance of victory).
However, the run up over the next three years weren’t easy. The Sri Lankan Cricket Board had tumbled. There was a case of players breaching discipline, and announcing retirements or NOC to play for other nations, owing to non-payment of dues.
Kusal Perera, who rose to fame for scripting that famous knock and presenting the SL victory in South Africa against the hosts, was taken off-board as a captain and a not-so-familiar Dasun Shanaka was given the reins. There were internal murmurs on Shanaka not being a fit even in the XI. But the new captain and the team made their work about silently.
While losing to a less-than-second string Indian side, further hit by COVID, the Lankan Legion did claim the T20I series. After a not so lucrative, T20 World Cup and losses against the likes of Zimbabwe, the first sign of resurgence came in when Shanaka steered Sri Lanka to an unlikely victory against the incumbent World Champions, Australia smashing 48 off the last 13 deliveries.
Things had changed dramatically, meanwhile. Chris Silverwood, who was pivotal in shaping England’s 2019 World Cup win, as a bowling coach and who would later become England’s coach, until his unceremonious sacking, after winning only 1 out of 17 tests in the WTC cycle, joined the Lankan Legion to be their head coach. Silverwood’s aggressive play style and England’s player ownership style got reflected into the Sri Lankan culture.
Be it the talented Wanindu Hasaranga or the wily Prabath Jayasuriya or the aggressive Chamika Karunaratne or the calm Dasun Shanaka, an unheralded Charith Asalanka or the highly regarded Pathum Nissanka, everyone owned up matches for the team on different occasions. All this, in spite of Sri Lanka facing its worst ever economic crisis as a Nation. Cricketers had to walk for miles, to practice for the Asia Cup, owing to a critical fuel shortage crisis.
With the biggest of ordeals, and something that can’t be equated to any other country, Sri Lanka walked into the Asia Cup, at a low. While, analysts and experts didn’t give them any chance, Sri Lanka had a horrendous first match losing out to Afghanistan in just 10.5 overs.
Questions were raised, and the captain put forth that the batsmen weren’t finding the right answers to Afghanistan’s world class bowling attack, but added how Bangladesh only had Shakib & Fizz in the world-class category and hence the upcoming game was relatively easier. Suddenly, the interpretations fizzled, with Bangladesh’s Khaled Mahmud hitting back saying Sri Lanka didn’t have even a single world-class player. The spirits of Sri Lanka stirred, suddenly. In the do-or-die game, Si Lanka completed a successful and spirited chase to knock Bangladesh out of the tournament, a win that actually helped me crush the ghosts of the past (The controversy and the 2018 Nidahas Trophy loss). A spectacular payback to Afghanistan, opened their account in the Super-4 Stage.
But their sensational last over clincher against India, and clinching back-to-back victories over Pakistan, crowned them the Asia Champions. The victory in the finale, more special, because it came against Pakistan after reeling at 58/5 at one stage, with a Bhanuka & Hasaranga special getting them to a par score of 170. The bowlers- Pramod Madushan, playing only his 2nd T20Isl scalping 4 wickets and the Wizard Wanindu, claiming 3 in an over, then delivered one up to close a special victory in a Dubai Pitch notorious for favoring the chasing side.
This was incidentally, the first win at Dubai in recent times against a Test-playing side, by batting first.
While experts had written off Sri Lanka, owing to the unavailability of Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera, their key pacers, owing to injuries, the young brigade of Dilshan Madushanaka, Pramod Madushan and Asitha Fernando rose up to the challenge. With the likes of Matheesha Pathirana and Dunith Wellalage, waiting in the wings, Sri Lankan cricket which has risen from the dead is all set to soar in the sky, and the Asia Cup victory will possibly be the first step towards it.