January 4, 2013

Blips and (a few) bright spots

Off the field, Sri Lankan cricket was a shambles last year. On it, it was a mixed bag

New Year's Day 2012 found Sri Lanka still glowing in the aftermath of a famous Durban victory, and their fans hoping the win had brought an end to the eight-month torment that followed the 2011 World Cup. It would not be so easy.

The first Test of their year was a heavy loss in Cape Town, and their last a woeful surrender of wits and will at the MCG.

But to dwell on the big losses that bookended the year is perhaps unfair to a side that has launched a minor resurgence in 2012, if only a stuttering one. They were mostly competent at home, winning three Tests in Galle, and progressing to a major limited-overs final - which at times seemed a pipe dream during the dark days of Tillakaratne Dilshan's captaincy. They were rarely dominant, and the good results were punctuated by some appalling ones (or "blips" as Mahela Jayawardene has taken to calling them), but Sri Lanka have discovered that there is life after Murali, and at least found form in limited-overs cricket. If a difficult catch early in Marlon Samuels' World Twenty20- final innings had been held at long-off, or had Lasith Malinga not been so off-colour for that encounter, their year may well have taken on a much brighter hue.

However, what was most worrying for Sri Lanka was not their inconsistency, nor an ageing Test top order, but the administrative shambles that has proved an obstacle to the national side. Take for instance SLC secretary Nishantha Ranatunga, who feels that it is not a conflict of interest for him to be the CEO of the TV channel that won the local broadcast rights from the SLC while holding his post at the board. He will also claim that it is simply coincidence that that TV channel is owned by the Sri Lankan president's sons. Elsewhere, a tape alleging corruption in the SLPL has not been heard about since August, a confidential letter to the board from Jayawardene appeared in the media, and a senior board member resorted to name-calling on Facebook after a journalist wrote a scathing column about the SLC.

The board is also still in financial disarray, and though the players are now receiving payment, SLC's austerity measures involve removing five Tests from Sri Lanka's 2013 schedule, including a three-Test series against South Africa at home.

New kid on the block
Sri Lanka's find of the year has played only one ODI and four Twenty20s, but in a year where few exceptional talents emerged, Akila Dananjaya had the most impressive start in international cricket. In his four T20s, Dananjaya took seven wickets at 11.85, but perhaps more impressive is the fact that for someone who had never played anything even remotely close to professional cricket until August, he is yet to seem uncomfortable in internationals.

Dananjaya had his cheek fractured by a Rob Nicol straight drive on debut, but he came back to not only complete a tight spell but to take Nicol's wicket as well. He was undaunted in the World Twenty20 final too, taking Samuels' wicket after the batsman had blitzed the likes of Malinga.

Dananjaya has good control over five different deliveries, and is also canny in his deployment of each ball. The challenge for him is to develop a game more reliant on flight and dip than on mystery, which may only bring fleeting success, but he has already shown a willingness to adapt and improve, and his temperament cannot so far be faulted.

Fading star
There are several ageing top-order batsmen in Sri Lanka's Test side, but the most brittle among them appears to be Thilan Samaraweera. His century in Durban set up an unforgettable victory there, and he followed that up with another hundred at Newlands, but he was unable to carry that form into the rest of 2012, in which he averaged 32.58, crossing 50 only four times in 18 innings.

Samaraweera has resurrected his career at least twice already, including the time he recovered from a bullet wound in his thigh after the Lahore attacks, but as a Test specialist, he might have six matches to play at most in 2013, making another meaningful resurgence all the more difficult.

High point
The Test win against the top-ranked side in the world at home comes close, but Sri Lanka needed a breakthrough series win after three barren years, and it finally came in July against Pakistan, who had humiliated England themselves in their last series. Some of the sheen of the victory was dulled by Jayawardene's decision not to attempt a target of 270 in 62 overs in the third Test, but ultimately Sri Lanka were in a strong position throughout all five days of that match, and perhaps given the length of their winless streak, the conservative approach was an understandable, if unpopular, one.

Low point
Off the field there were several low points, with the removal of five Tests from 2013's calendar chief among them, but on the field no loss felt worse than Sri Lanka's dismal effort in Melbourne, in front of the biggest Test crowd they have ever played for. The 156 all out on the first day on a good batting surface effectively made a win impossible and a draw almost as unlikely. The collapse was particularly frustrating, because it was largely the result of poor shot selection rather than extraordinary prowess on the part of Australia's bowlers. The shelled catches in Australia's innings worsened Sri Lanka's distress to despair, when there might have been a slim chance of coming back into contention, and their batting on day three was horrific, bordering on hilarious.

What 2013 holds
If there are still those who believe T20 domestic leagues are not to the detriment of international cricket, a glance at Sri Lanka's 2013 schedule should cure them of their delusion. SLC has cleared the side's calendar of any international fixtures that clash with either the IPL or the SLPL, meaning that including the three weeks occupied by the Champions' League's unofficial window, Sri Lanka now have three and a half months in the year in which they cannot play any international cricket. A glut of ODI cricket populates the rest of the calendar, with the Champions Trophy and tri-series involving India and West Indies taking place in the middle of the year.

Angelo Mathews' handling of the captaincy promises to be intriguing, when Sri Lanka do manage to play some international cricket. His cricket has not suggested yet that he has the brain to match his brawn, but he did find some success as captain of his SLPL side in 2012, and he certainly possesses the temperament required of a good leader. Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara will be around for support, but Mathews will quickly want to put his own stamp on the post and build the respect and relationships he will need if he hopes to hold the job for long.

In Tests, Sri Lanka have expressed a desire to wean youngsters against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and the first position up for grabs may be the opening spot vacated by Dilshan, who has said the Sydney Test may be his last. There is some batting talent in Sri Lanka's domestic scene, and the likes of Angelo Perera may be drafted into the side, while Dinesh Chandimal, who has waited in the wings for a regular spot, should find himself carving out a Test career in earnest.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here