Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackapagePix
LONDON – News that Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews will miss Saturday’s opening Champions Trophy match against South Africa with a hamstring injury is simply another addition to the litany of concerns the Sri Lankans are carrying into the tournament.

Their bowling is below-par, their batting lacks consistency, their fielding has become a joke and their overall form is wishy-washy. Naturally they’re being seen as no more than also-rans in Group B.

Their recent record against the other teams in the Group makes for depressing reading – they were swept by both South Africa and India in five matches series on the last occasions they played them and lost a series at home to Pakistan 3-2 in 2015.

But, unsurprisingly, they are also revelling in that underdog status and of course a team that feels it has nothing to lose can be a very dangerous one indeed. “Sometimes that is a good place to be. We’ve certainly got a chance of upsetting one of the so-called better nations,” commented coach Graham Ford.

To take advantage of the relative freedom they have in this tournament Sri Lanka has some potent talent at its disposal. The batting, though obviously hurt by the loss of Mathews still has some dynamic talent.

Niroshan Dickwella was a mystery to the South Africans earlier this year when he led Sri Lanka to success in the T20 series and then led the run scoring charts for them in the subsequent ODI series. He’s an adventurous type, irritating for opposing bowlers, brilliant for teammates and neutral viewers.

In Kusal Mendis they have another wonderfully attacking young player who didn’t display his best against the Proteas last summer, while Dinesh Chandimal, Asela Gunaratne and Upul Tharanga provide experience with the bat.

Much will depend on Lasith Malinga with the ball. Although there’ve been doubts ahead of the tournament about his fitness, he seemed to dispel those with an eight over spell against Australia in a warm-up game at The Oval last week.

Malinga’s role goes beyond just slinging in yorkers at the ‘death’ for he is an inspirational figure for the rest of his teammates.

Angelo Mathews will miss Saturday’s opening Champions Trophy match against South Africa. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Reuters

Ford has sought to offset the lack of confidence in his squad by surrounding them with with a knowledgeable back-room staff, calling on Allan Donald to supplement a bowling coaching unit containing – Chaminda Vaas, Champaka Ramanayake, Ravindra Pushpakumara and Nuwan Zoysa. Including Donald, that coaching unit has 674 caps worth of ODI experience which the Sri Lankan bowlers can call upon.

Donald admitted his role is not a technical one, but rather to inspire individuals – something he did a lot of when he worked with the Proteas. ‘White Lightning’ is no stranger to operating in the opposition camp against the country he served with such distinction as a player and more recently as bowling coach.

At the 2011 World Cup he was New Zealand’s bowling coach, helping the Black Caps come up with strategies that undermined South Africa in the quarter-final in Dhaka and instigating another of the mental meltdowns for which the Proteas are famous at ICC tournaments.

Donald believes Sri Lanka’s attack “has what it takes to win the tournament”, but words and deeds are separated by many miles once the white line’s been crossed.

Sri Lanka’s ODI record in the last two years makes for wretched reading – just 13 victories out of 38 matches – and in warming up for this tournament they lost three of four matches including one to Scotland. They will draw some comfort from the fact that they scored totals topping 300 against Australia (at The Oval) and New Zealand, with Tharanga making 110 against the latter.

Still, for all their problems, Sri Lanka has some magic in their ranks and if the occasion takes them they are more than capable of upsetting the apple-cart. And with expectations so low they really won’t feel as much pressure as the No 1 ranked ODI team will.


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