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Hurt and embarrassed Sri Lanka hope to stop Indian juggernaut

Wisden India logo Wisden India 24-08-2017 Roshan Thyagarajan

Nic Pothas has been Sri Lanka’s interim coach since June 27. Originally the fielding coach of the side, he was promoted to the position in the wake of Graham Ford’s abrupt exit following the Champions Trophy. Two months into the job, the wide grin he put on when accepting the role is nowhere in evidence.

Having been with the Sri Lankans since June 2016, Pothas knew what he was getting into when he was offered the role earlier this year. He believed he could see Sri Lanka past the seemingly unending transition period, but is now just a bundle of rage.

His frustration was that evident when he arrived at the post-match press conference after another humiliating loss to India, in the opening One-Day International in Dambulla last Sunday.

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“It swings between hurt and embarrassment,” he thundered with a forehead full of ready-to-burst veins. “If we were left alone, if we had more control of the team, we can work with this group of players.”

It is not likely that red-faced Pothas’s wish will be granted anytime soon. At least not in time for the second game, at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Thursday (August 24).

The hope is that Sri Lanka, under Upul Tharanga’s captaincy, will bounce back and level the five-match series. But recent records, and the strained dynamics inside the dressing-room, make it considerably difficult to entertain the possibility. It becomes especially hard when their latest track record is a 0-3 Test series loss to India, before which they lost 2-3 to Zimbabwe in an ODI series.

Sri Lanka offered glimpses of bucking the trend with the fight they put on for nearly two hours of the first game, courtesy Niroshan Dickwella, Danushka Gunathilaka and Kusal Mendis. That gives Pothas something to motivate his men with, but the tougher task now is to ignore how they fared thereon. Sri Lanka went from 139 for 1 to 216 all out in the span of 117 deliveries. This, on a day when India’s bowlers were not at their best.

India gave away ten wides and were wayward in the first half of the Sri Lankan innings, often bowling short and wide or down leg. Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, implied that India did not assess the conditions well, but was looking at it as a lesson learned.

Should the bowling unit deliver as per the coach’s demands, Sri Lanka have a tougher ride lined up. With this batting line-up, Sri Lanka are not prepared to handle that sort of heat.

Less than 48 hours after stating that he was unhappy with external interferences in Sri Lanka’s selection matters, Nic Pothas did a 360-degree turn on Wednesday. “It should be stated that I am very happy with everything that is going on within our four walls in that change room and just to clarify things, I am very happy with the situation with the board,” he announced, much to the surprise of those gathered at the conference hall.

“The Board (Sri Lanka Cricket) has been hugely supportive of everything that I do and the players do and they continue to support us. Certainly, I have no issues there.”

On Sunday, after Sri Lanka suffered a nine-wicket battering at the hands of India, Pothas barged into the conference room, fuming after his side’s latest loss. The former South African wicketkeeper was not much for subtleties on the day as he lashed out at the selectors and other factors interfering in the team’s rebuilding process, saying: “To say too many cooks is probably accurate.”

A majority of their batsmen arrive at the crease looking confident. The technique is on point and Sri Lankan flair never out of question, but playing across the line is not what the batting manual recommends, and that is with good reason.

That said, the sweep is a good option against spinners, and that is one shot the Sri Lankans have lived by. Fact is, they have also died by it. Not just during the Test series, but also in the first game. Sri Lanka lost Gunathilaka and Dickwella to sweeps, a reverse sweep and a scoop-sweep respectively. Had it not been for those two shots, Sri Lanka may not have needed to depend on their middle and lower orders as desperately. Angelo Mathews was the only one who did not disappoint as he played himself into an unbeaten 36, even though in the end, it made little difference.

Indian romped to a nine-wicket win with Shikhar Dhawan smashing his fastest ODI century (132 not out from 90 balls) and Virat Kohli coasting to an unbeaten 82. There is little reason to believe that Sri Lanka would have ended on the right side of the result even had they put up a total in the region of 300, given the strength and depth of the Indian batting.

The Rohit Sharma-Dhawan combine at the top can be devastating. Then comes Kohli at No. 3 and the Indian skipper’s ability needs no further stating. KL Rahul at four provides the balance. The attacking middle order with MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya, followed by Axar Patel and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, make for a potent combination.

The temptation to leave out Jadhav and draft Manish Pandey, who had a superb India A series in South Africa and is looking in great touch in the nets, for Thursday’s game will be high, but that change will be subject to India’s position on the extra spin option. Should Pandey feature in the XI, it will only add to the burgeoning list of Sri Lanka’s concerns.

While casual batting and abysmal fielding top the aforementioned list, the bowling is not far behind. Lasith Malinga, the team’s strike bowler, is close to his sell-by date, if not past it. From time to time, he can offer a glimpse of past glory, but that’s about it. Thisara Perera is no spring chicken either, and it is likely that the decision makers will leave him out for Dushmantha Chameera, the young paceman. In other likely changes, Lakshan Sandakan and Wanidu Hasaranga could make way for Malinda Pushpakumara, who might debut at 30, and Milinda Siriwardana.

At the pre-match press conference on Wednesday, Pothas went back on what he said 48 hours ago about too many cooks et al. For Sri Lanka’s sake, the bonhomie that they are seeking to portray must spill over on to the field if they are not to be run ragged again.

Teams (likely):

Sri Lanka: Upul Tharanga (capt), Angelo Mathews, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Chamara Kapugedera, Milinda Siriwardana, Malinda Pushpakumara, Dushmantha Chameera, Lasith Malinga, Vishwa Fernando.

India: Virat Kohli (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav/ Manish Pandey, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

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