Sri Lanka: What Dilshan Did Right

A skipper must be prepared to plant some seeds (by spending time with his players after hours) if he wants to reap rewards on the field and become a respected leader. Once he acquires that status he’ll well on the way to becoming a good captain.” Ian Chappell on Captaincy

Cricket’s rich history is littered with great men and great captains, who naturally understood the role and the demands of leadership. Yet flip the coin over and there on the other side are the nearly men, who despite quite lofty status never quite managed to find the role to their liking. Sadly for Tillakaratne Dilshan, history will remember him firmly as the latter.

Dilshan seldom seemed an obvious fit for captaincy-especially following in the footsteps of two of Sri Lanka’s most successful leaders, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkarra. Where both players epitomised a calm, cerebral approach to leadership, from the outset Dilshan appeared to offer something altogether different, perhaps relying more on a sense of ingénue over method.

Sadly hindsight tells us something different. Dilshan’s creative streak struggled to inspire his team, his leadership qualities struggled to shine through and his contributions with both bat and ball became diminished as the burden of responsibility seemed to weigh him down. Under his tenure his team struggled, winning just one Test match but losing every series they played, while even worse their form in one day internationals-where they reached the World Cup in 2011-they lost every series they played under him.

Though Dilshan was also an unlucky captain. He inherited a team which was patently in decline-losing Murali was always going to take getting over-but for the first time in nearly two decades their bowling lacked an edge and their batting line-up, Sangakkara apart, struggled as a unit. That was just on-the-field, off it the team had to contend with political interference, players going unpaid , two coaching changes and a series of administrative cock-ups-things any team would struggle with.

But for all his failings as a captain, the latter days of Dilshan’s regime showcased what has been one of the few positives of his time in charge-the emergence of Sri Lanka’s next generation.

His final match saw a fine cameo from 22-year old Lahiru Thirimanne who hit 69 off 63 balls and debutant Sachithra Senanayake smashed a match-winning six with his first scoring shot in ODI cricket-not to mention grabbing his first wicket too. The previous match had seen 22-year old all-rounder Thisara Perera lead his side home, a player who has featured prominently under Dilshan.

Then there is the most exciting of all Sri Lanka’s young players, Dinesh Chandimal, who played a prominent role in Dilshan’s only Test win with two 50s on debut, and whose potent mix of composure and technique suggest a long and prolific international career lies ahead. Add in the likes of Shaminda Eranga, Seekuge Prasanna and Dimuth Karunaratne, all of whom have made their international debuts under Dilshan, and suddenly Sri Lanka’s pool of emerging talent starts to look far deeper than in the days pre-Dilshan.

As Dilshan himself noted in his final interview prior to his departure:

“In the last few series I gave the opportunity to youngsters, especially in this series, and we saw them doing it [well] for Sri Lanka. I am really happy to do that and to see that they grabbed the opportunities and performed under pressure. I believe in my youngsters, that’s the future for Sri Lanka.”

Despite all his failings during his tenure as captain, this could just be the silver lining to Dilshan’s reign. The experiences and opportunities provided to the young Sri Lankans, not to mention the confidence he had in them at such an early stage of their careers could ultimately dividends sooner rather than later and help Sri Lanka move forward once again.

As Chappell points out above, good captains plant seeds to reap the rewards in the end. Dilshan may not have made a good captain, but the seeds he has planted may yet bear fruit in the years ahead. Sri Lanka may yet be grateful for the small part he played in helping them build once more.

Steven Finn: England’s fast learner

Steven Finn: England's youngest since Botham

Sir Ian Botham doesn’t appear to be a man concerned too much about records and reputations, and given his reputation as an England supporter he will no doubt have been as pleased as anyone to see one of his longer standing records disappear to Steven Finn.

33 years have passed since Botham became the youngest England bowler to 50 Test wickets, but with the wicket of Prasanna Jayawardene, Finn at the age of 22 years and 63 days overtook Sir Ian which is no bad thing for a young man in the early stages of his career. It rounded off a fairly up and down match for Finn, one which started poorly with the ball as he continually sprayed the ball down the leg side and struggled to find his length-frequently bowling either too short or too full.

England’s bowlers were poor but Finn in particular struggled more than Chris Tremlett or Stuart Broad to cope on a ground he should know well and often provided Matt Prior with more of a challenge than either Tillakaratne Dilshan or Tharanga Paranavitana as he continually found himself diving towards his leg stump.

Yet to his credit, Finn managed to turn things around albeit slowly but surely. On the third day he began to locate a far more consistent line and length, as David Saker discussed at the close of play, and then today he began to threaten consistently-including sending shudders through Lakmal’s helmet with a bouncer aimed at his head. All the while he maintained his happy knack for taking wickets, four of the top six in fact, to finish with match figures of 4-108 which hardly reflect his early struggles.

This exemplified two of Finn’s finest qualities-firstly the knack for taking wickets consistently and secondly his ability to learn quickly and adapt to a situation. Against Bangladesh he was rushed into the team quickly and found himself forced to cope on dead subcontinent wickets-something which impressed the England management. Then against Australia he found himself being challenged by Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin in Brisbane but bounced back to take a six-wicket haul. He’s even managed to stop falling down in his delivery stride, adapting his run-up to generate more pace and stop him falling away as he delivers the ball.

Sure he still has plenty of work to do, as his problems in the first innings showed, but Finn has already shown himself to be a fast learner. If he carries on like this then perhaps today’s record could be the first of many for a young man going places fast.

England vs Sri Lanka: An Australian kind of victory

At the start of the fifth day England were not supposed to win their Test against Sri Lanka, the rain was falling, the leader of their bowling attack was injured and frankly time was running out. Yet the fact they did it, maintaining their winning momentum from the Ashes, and took all ten Sri Lankan wickets in 24.4 overs was a remarkable achievement and one which kicked a key summer for this team into gear.

For whatever the criticisms of the Sri Lankan batting, which was always likely to struggle if Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene failed to fire, plenty of credit is due to England. Their bowlers followed up on the fine work of their batting line-up (three centurions-one with a daddy hundred, another with a grand-daddy) and exerted the kind of pressure which Sri Lanka’s bowlers failed to build up.

The steepling bounce and consistent length of Chris Tremlett was complimented by some wonderfully skillful spin bowling from Graeme Swann and a more consistent showing from Stuart Broad who was far more consistent with line and length second time round. There was no way out for the Sri Lankan batsmen, choked by the relentless pressure of England’s bowlers and the scoreboard and match situation. They had no hope of victory, and England exerting pressure, took the draw out of the equation.

It was a victory which had shades of the kind of disintegration which Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting practised at their height of dominance. Time after time, Australia’s stellar batting line-up would rack up substantial scores and then with the seam of Glenn McGrath, the pace of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee and then the spin of Shane Warne. Ponting once remarked ahead of an Ashes tour: “Mental disintegration? That’s what it’s all about, really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That’s what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on.”

For Andrew Strauss and the veterans of England’s 2006/2007 Ashes tour this will have brought back shades of their own collapse in Adelaide when Warne got into their minds and turned a seemingly inevitable situation around. Just as England then seemed destined for defeat once the collapse began, so Sri Lanka seemed destined for defeat here-the hunted had become the hunter.

England: Eoin Morgan foils the Selectors

One wondered whether in the midst of their gargantuan partnership for England Lions against Sri Lanka whether Samit Patel was tempted to turn to Eoin Morgan and utter as Graham Gooch once did to Ian Botham, “who writes your scripts?” Because this was certainly one of those moments of which star turns are made, despite the relatively humble surroundings in which it came.

Eoin Morgan flown back from the IPL last week where he was shunted around, failed to score runs, without little more than practice against net bowling to get him into the groove for first class cricket was being thrown in at the deep end for what was effectively a straight shootout for a Test spot against a man who has made all the right noises, done all the right things and scored all the right runs.

Yet despite all those odds, those questionmarks, once he got out into the middle they all quickly melted away. His form was good, his eye importantly was good. That aura and authority which has been eroded after more than six months kicking his heels on tour with England was back. Suddenly you remembered quite why he was the likely candidate for the Test team as he dominated spin and seam with that touch of class and steely glint in his eye which is now his trademark.

If this were a straight shoot-out then Morgan would be winning it. Perhaps not considerably, but certainly on points after Ravi Bopara lucked out and left for a low score. Yet the fact remains, that this was never a straight shootout. It was never going to be Morgan vs Bopara, or Bopara vs Hildreth vs Morgan vs Taylor because the selectors have made their bed, and Bopara is going to lie in it.

They were probably hoping, deep down that Morgan would fail here. It would make it all the more easier to pick Bopara over him on the basis of batting form. Yet now that’s gone, and if Bopara is picked and fails against opposition he has struggled in against Test cricket before, then the clamour for Morgan will intensify even further especially after an innings like this.

England selectors may have hoped for things to become that little bit clearer after their Derby trip, yet Morgan has simply muddied the waters even further.

Test cricket: The role of the opener continues to evolve

Chris Gayle smashed 219* on the first day against Sri Lanka

Ask any author about the importance of a good opening and they’ll tell you it is crucial to any written work. It sets the tone, the pace and the spirit of the piece, and getting it right is vital, get it wrong and you’re off on the wrong foot immediately.

The importance of getting the opening right is also a vital part of a cricket innings; it sets the tone, dictates the pace and often determines whether the innings will sink or swim. For some the opening of an innings is an art of survival, a battle of pragmatism and practicality-particularly in England where the ball is liable to swing for longer.

But for others it is a chance to start off with a flyer, to immediately put pressure back on the bowler, the opposition and the captain, seizing the advantage from the off. In the past these examples were used brilliant by the very best in Test cricket, think the Haynes/Greenidge and Langer/Hayden partnerships.

However with the advent of Twenty20, the increasing exposure of Test players to limited overs cricket, the method of the opener has changed as more players are capable of hitting boundaries from the off. Whereas in the past only a few players would play an aggressive opener at the top of their order, now more teams are utilizing such players.

Brendan McCullum shows he can cut it at the top of the order

There were three brilliant examples of this in the past two days with the innings of Virender Sehwag, Brendan McCullum and Chris Gayle. In total the three of them hit 439 runs in 544 balls-a strike rate of 80.69 with 52 fours and 12 sixes-Gayle hitting six of them himself.

Gayle’s innings deserves special acclaim as it came at a time when he was under particular pressure due to losing the captaincy and also his failure to sign a WICB contract, but his was a special innings-the kind we know he is capable of-and he himself has sights on topping his triple century against South Africa next year.

But it was also a big moment for McCullum, who is seeking to prove himself at the top of the New Zealand batting order. Runs would have validated his position, but to do so in the manner which makes him so special is even better news.

Sehwag’s brilliance is simply treated as par for the course, a testament to both his consistency and his prolific appetite for runs. He is a unique and genuinely great player who combines brute strength with fantastic hand-eye co-ordination. What the likes of Gavaskar and Boycott would have made of opening this style is another matter.

The point is not to lavish praise on these talented individuals, all three are ranked among the finest hitters in the world and all had success as openers previously, albeit in McCullum’s case in limited overs form of the game.

But it is rather to mark the evolution of the role of the opening batsmen in Test cricket. Look around the international arena nowadays and almost every team starts with an opener capable of accelerating an innings.

Tamim Iqbal has shown no fear for Bangladesh

Nor is it just the larger teams, more dominant sides, as Bangladesh showed they too boast one in the sparkling talent of Tamim Iqbal who sent England’s attack to all parts both at home and abroad.

Gone are the days when mere survival was enough for an opener, now it is the era of attack as the best form of defence. It’s an evolution brought on by the limited overs game, but also by flat pitches, weaker bowling attacks and better and bigger bats.

All play their part, but ultimately it is also down to the personnel involved. Dashers like McCullum, Gayle and Sehwag have helped move the game on, seizing the advantage and capitalising on any opportunity.

As they’ve shown so brilliant, so hastily and so well, the role of the modern opener is far more than just build a platform for the middle order to thrive; it’s more a crash, bang wallop affair. How times sure have changed.

Murali’s last chance to say goodbye

While Australia’s fans may grumble about the type of schedule which their team are being subjected to as a warm-up for a competitive Ashes series, there’s no doubting that the quality of the Sri Lankan team which Australia must face.

Though the more vociferous fans may question why such a competitive limited overs series will provide satisfactory warm-up for a key Test series, the Sri Lankan opposition will be no pushovers and the members of this Australian team will certainly be pushed far.

Australia will have fond memories of facing several of these Sri Lankan team, especially captain Kumar Sangakkara, whose record in Australia is formidable and who warmed up for the series with a century against Queensland.

While the ominous sight of Mahela Jayawardene and offspinner Suraj Randiv finding form against New South Wales shows that Sri Lanka are not content to merely be a warm-up act for the Australians as they too look to prepare for next year’s World Cup.

But the most intriguing subplot of this series of three one day internationals and two Twenty20 games could well revolve around Muttiah Muralitheran.

The offspinner is widely feted as one of the greats of the game, and possibly the greatest spinner of all time. After his retirement from Test cricket last year, he has set a date of retiring completely at the 2011 World Cup, meaning this will be his last tour of Australia.

It has been in Australia where the criticisms of Muralitheran’s action have been most vociferous, and his love/hate relationship with Australia has largely stemmed from his competitive rivalry with Shane Warne for the position of leading test wicket-taker. But that too has spilled over beyond the borders of mere rivalry into a more sustained and hostile attack.

It was while on tour in Australia in 1995 that Roy Emerson famously called Murali for chucking, while Australia’s prime minister also labelled the bowler “a chucker” and claimed “they proved it with that video thing”.

What he was actually referring to was a video replay, but it merely exacerbated an already fractious situation, which resulted in Muralitheran missing his country’s tour to Australia altogether. Neither have the Australian crowds taken to him, as the suspicion about his action has remained and the legacy of both Howard’s words and Emerson’s actions remaining.

But for all the criticisms and suspicions, there has also been respect and affection. When Muralitheran took part in a Tsunami aid match in 2005 he warmly received.

That competitive rivalry with Warne spilled over into something bordering on genuine respect once Muralitheran carried on after the Australian’s retirement, and there has been a whole host of plaudits from Australian fans, pundits and players who have realised that they are in the presence of a true cricketing master.

Though at 38 he is not quite the bowler he was in his youth, he remains a key component of this Sri Lanka attack, and his recent performances for Chennai-where he took three wickets in the Champions League final-suggest he has lost none of his guile and cunning, and will prove stiff opposition for Australia even right to the very end.

While Murali’s relationship with this nation which lives and breathes cricket has at times been tough, now, at the end, is a genuine chance for it to end it on good terms.