Sri Lanka counts on its bowlers to deliver the goods and help it emerge third-time lucky
Three weeks ago, India arrived in Bangladesh to a vastly different soundtrack. It was a shriller one, with the sort of notes only strident criticism can produce. The coach was belaboured, and in a few days, the captain’s name would be dragged through muck of varying consistency.
Such is the nature of the calendar that today only three hours of cricket separate India from holding a third concurrent global trophy, an accomplishment that would bestow on it the status of a limited-over cricket overlord.
The shift in climate must have seemed absurd, yet familiar, as India’s players went through their training routine — an hour’s football — at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium. As much as they may protest any such suggestions, the truth is their side goes into Sunday’s ICC World Twenty20 final as the favourite over Sri Lanka.
M.S. Dhoni’s lot have been rigorous in their ways, winning five straight matches without fuss or outward signs of discomfort. South Africa was to present a stern examination in the semifinal, but R. Ashwin — his role again invaluable — and Virat Kohli ensured India did not have to break sweat.
Ajinkya Rahane acquitted himself fairly well in Shikhar Dhawan’s place as the batsmen endured little trouble in turning the strike over or finding the boundary.
Sri Lanka will differ in that regard. In its semifinal defeat of the West Indies, Lasith Malinga and Sachithra Senanayake were introduced early to choke the opponent’s hard hitters. That plan may not be fully effective against India, but Sri Lanka has better bowlers for these conditions than South Africa did.
Kohli famously took Malinga apart in Hobart two years ago, and in ODI cricket, his bowling average against India is 15 more than his overall figure. The fact remains, however, that in T20 cricket, he is notoriously difficult to attack.
Sri Lanka fielded three full-time spinners — Senanayake, Rangana Herath and Seekkuge Prasanna — against the West Indies. It remains to be seen if that approach will continue.
When the two teams met recently in the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka prevailed in a close game, Ajantha Mendis taking four for 60. He has had a bad tournament here, and was thrashed even by England before being dropped. However big the temptation, it is unlikely that he will be recalled.
Sri Lanka’s regular captain, Dinesh Chandimal, will continue to sit out in what must be an awkward situation for the team. He did not even take part in the customary captains’ photo-session with the World Twenty20 trophy, Malinga taking his place instead. Strangely, Malinga insisted he would remain captain even if Chandimal plays on Sunday.
There is no case, however, for a berth for the latter in the eleven. Lahiru Thirimanne justified his inclusion with a vital 44 in the semifinal. It was his contribution, and Angelo Mathews’s flourish towards the close, that saw Sri Lanka to a reasonable score in the end. Despite the presence of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, both of whom will retire from T20 Internationals after the final, the batting has not appeared very forceful.
India will thus seek to get quiet overs out of Suresh Raina through the middle of the innings, an attempt that nearly backfired against South Africa. Meanwhile, Mohit Sharma, who was preferred to Mohammed Shami, went for 34 from his three overs; it is not a simple decision to make.
India’s conquest of both the ICC World Cup in 2011 and the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013 required the defeat of Sri Lanka at a late stage, the final and the semifinal respectively. Sri Lanka will deny that these things have any bearing, but having entered the final of the ICC World Twenty20 twice before and the knockouts of global events eight times out of the last 12, another failure will be a bitter pill to swallow.
For India and Dhoni, making their second final appearance in the competition, there is already overwhelming acceptance as a powerhouse of limited-over cricket.
Victory will only bring boundless joy.