Australia and Sri Lanka: A Tale Of Chalk And Cheese In T20 Cricket

The first phase of the T20 International World Cup just ended, and the teams that will be fighting for glory have been picked. This week, Roar looks into Sri Lanka’s favourite sport, to explore the ups and downs of two teams that have had diverse fortunes in T20Is over the years.

On February 17, 2005, Australia created history by becoming the only team to not only have played the first game of all three cricketing formats (tests, one day internationals, and T20Is) but also the only team to have won all three games. Their team score in this match remained at the helm until they broke it themselves on January 9, 2007. This was intact until on September 14, 2007 Sri Lanka set the (still standing) highest team score of 260/6. Fast forward almost a decade, Sri Lanka have played in three World T20 finals, finally winning the last one and beating arch rivals India. Australia, conversely, have played in one final, going down to arch rivals England. Sri Lanka was the world’s Number 1 T20 side for some time, while Australian cricket continues to be the highest standard ‒ the pinnacle the world strives to reach.

Yet, if you look at both teams’ performances during the last two months, it won’t reflect anything of what we just described in the previous paragraph. Sri Lanka has won only two of their last ten T20Is, while Australia have also won only two in their last eight games, both wins coming from their last two matches against South Africa. What happened to these two teams? Let’s try and break it down.

A Brief History In Time

Sri Lanka celebrates after their April 2014 T20 World Cup win against India in the finals. Image Credit AFP

It has been two years since Mahela Jayawardene (MJ) and Kumar Sangakkara (Sanga) retired from T20s since winning the T20I World Cup in 2014, Sri Lanka has played fourteen matches across six series, of which they have won only four matches and one series, while drawing one at home against the West Indies. The series win was against England, in a one off match at the Oval.

Since February 2013, Sri Lanka has also had a dual captaincy, shared by Test and ODI captain Angelo Mathews (Angie) and current T20I captain Lasith Malinga (Mali), while Dinesh Chandimal (Chandi) has occasionally been asked to step up when Mali sustained injuries.

During the same period, Australia played eleven matches and five series, winning five matches and three series. It is also notable that they only played one T20I between November 9, 2014 and January 26, 2016.  Australia have also had a split captaincy during the period, with Aaron Finch taking over the T20I leadership.

To put these results in perspective, India, the current Number 1 ranked T20I team, has played sixteen matches across six series. They’ve won ten games and three series which also included the recently concluded Asian Cup. Even England, the only country to have maintained a sub standard limited overs squad over the last two decades, have five victories and one tie in their last eight games.

So what happened to Sri Lanka? Did the retirement of MJ & Sanga cause this downfall, or did their presence just paper over the cracks that were widening in the Lankan camp? Similarly, Australia, the powerful professional machine that has been the misery of many test and ODI teams, are struggling and performing below par in this format.

The Cracked Pearl Of The Indian Ocean

What’s behind Sri Lanka’s struggle to perform well in the T20 format? Image Credit Getty Images

The catalyst for Sri Lanka’s current downfall started when, in a dramatic incursion, the England and Wales cricket Board (ECB) poached incumbent Sri Lankan national coach, Paul Farbrace, as Peter Moore’s deputy, literally weeks before Sri Lanka were to tour England and Ireland.

Farbrace and his predecessor, Graham Ford, had set up a very good foundation and team culture. Also, there was a good selection of youngsters coming through the ranks.This, plus the SLC’s foresight to hire former Surrey coach Chris Adams as a consultant for this series, and to organise the tour in such a way that the limited overs leg preceded the test matches, meant that the move of losing the head coach didn’t cripple the team as much as everyone expected. Sri Lanka ended up winning all three formats, temporarily disrupting England’s resurgence after a disastrous winter in Australia.

But again, what went wrong? There are some theories. Sri Lankans, as this writer believes, at most levels, sometimes lack the ability to work as professionals, and as cohesive units. This is a bit of hearsay as the Lankan cricket team’s biggest strength has always been that they are greater than the sum of the individuals: some of our best, odds-defying performances have come when the team played as a collective unit rather than individual brilliance.

However, the same cannot be said about Sri Lankan politicians or cricket administrators.

During this period, while the players were doing their best on the field, there were other players outside setting pieces in motion that would eventually disrupt the on-field game. There were issues with staff retention, allegations of poor remuneration, leaking of emails, as well as names of potential coaching applicants and coaching staff being sacked and rehired. All of this done perhaps to keep the same set of pawns closer to the king. Then there’s the SLC Secretary’s involvement with the now disgraced Carlton Sports Network. If you look at the current international teams, the ones that are inconsistent and struggling, are also the ones that have the most unstable administrations. Did MJ’s tactical acumen and Sanga’s unnerving professionalism plaster over the cracks within the system? Did their presence magically erase the inadequacies of our administration and coaching staff to strategise and plan ahead? Did Sanga’s herculean effort at the World Cup further mask these frailties? These are questions that cannot be ignored.

The quality of our players had been slowly dropping, the young pace attack that managed to thrill us in the UAE was breaking down, getting injured, and worse ‒ bowling wayward. Our fielding, once the envy of the world, had slumped to the worst in Asia. Even a politically motivated overhaul of the cricket administration couldn’t really change anything. The newly appointed interim committee had no incentive to bring forth any notable change. While the administration and coaching was lacking any clear direction, the sole blame should not fall purely on them. The players themselves cannot be fully absolved of their shortcomings. When you look at some of the players, you cannot help but question their commitment as professional athletes. There are several players in the team who, while may be amazingly talented, also look overweight, underskilled, and out of sorts. The professionalism that the Aussies pioneered has brought the game to a new level. The athleticism shown by modern cricketers, especially on the field, in the way they partner up for fielding, relay throws, and how they tag team on boundary catches, is quite amazing. In contrast, our guys look rather stiff, slow, and uncoordinated. Their fielding techniques are extremely poor, especially the catching. Even the once incapable Indians are doing a far better job on the field than us.

The same can be said about the batting. Cricket, even after evolving into the modern high flying spectacle it is considered today, is still a game of basics. Players must work hard and polish their basics to set a strong foundation for success. They must acquire a set of skills that can be transferable to face almost any type of batting condition around the world. This is something Sri Lankan youngsters have failed to grasp. They are continually making basic mistakes such as batting with hard hands, regularly playing away from the body when the conditions don’t permit, not reading the pace of the wicket, and falling over when playing on the leg side. The mindset of these young players at times looks scattered and directionless. Their only strategy seems to be to hit out rather than play according to the situation.

Given that cricket is often believed to be practically embedded in Sri Lankan DNA, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where they went wrong. Maybe there were always failings; or maybe there was just enough brilliance around the corner to keep pushing them forward. Now, it looks as though a culmination of substandard everything has slowly opened fans’ eyes to the truth as to where their cricket stands.

Amidst all this, incriminating rumours of fractions within the leadership group, along with infighting and influencing team selection has also surfaced. All this paints a rather disturbing image indeed for Sri Lankan cricket.

The Downfall Down Under

The Australian Team Squad for the 2016 T20 World Cup. Image Credit: ccl6t.com

The Australian downfall, while being completely different to Sri Lanka’s, is still quite extraordinary in its own nature. The Aussie way has always been a culture of never giving up. Being one of the harshest places to live, the Aussie story has always been one of fighting the odds till the end. Also, given their climate, Aussies have always been people of the land; this is true even for the thousands that came with the first fleet. Many Aussies till recently would have prefered surfing, fishing, and camping to relaxing at a beach resort. This attitude is prevalent in the way they fight in sport: never giving an inch or quarter till the end. To the majority of Aussies, real cricket is always test cricket. This writer has himself often heard Aussies say, “if you ain’t in whites and the ball ain’t red, then it ain’t cricket mate.” So when T20 first entered the foray, Aussies did buy into it, but not as a legitimate form of challenging cricket; rather, it was more fun and laughter than skill and tactics. ‘Hit and Giggle’ cricket as they called it is still a name that’s floating around. Their approach was very relaxed. Instead of names on the back of their shirts, they had nicknames, like Punter (Ponting), Haydos (Hayden) and Binga (Brett Lee). They used to mic up the players to have a chat with the commentary team, have a laugh and share tactics. This, of course, was to provide the spectators with inside access to what was going on in the middle of the pitch; however, it also emphasised the lackluster nature of their approach to this format.

While the Aussies were still looking at this as Hit and Giggle cricket, thanks to the money machine and glamour behind the IPL, for better or for worse, T20 cricket took off and other countries took up this format as a serious form of cricket, or stable revenue stream. It took a few years for the Aussies to catch on, but they eventually did, making the 2010 T20 World Cup final. This coincided with the release of the Argus report on the 2005 Ashes, and some drastic changes were brought into their game. One of these initiatives was the creation of a High Performance Manager role. This role brought some radical coaching practice to cricket, especially the controversial forced rotation policy.

Where Sri Lanka failed due to poor management and lack of foresight, it seems the Australian topsy turvy journey might be due to over-management. One of the initiatives that came from the high performance role was to only pick fast bowlers that bowled regularly over 145 kmph. This was heavily criticised during the 2015 Ashes tour when, despite not working, the strategy was continually pursued. Another strategy was to pick the squad based on x factor multi talented skills instead of genuine batsmen or bowlers. Their belief was that every player should bring more than one skill to the table. This is a fantastic afterthought: multi talented cricketers do bring a new dynamic to the team, but it also runs the risk of bringing in half cricketers who do not have the right skills or the mental ability to face the tough situations of international cricket. As previously noted, cricket is a game of basics and there is a lot of tradition in the approach. However, tradition is time dependent and should eventually evolve, but forcing evolution doesn’t guarantee success. For example, some of the top run scorers of T20I, like Brendon McCullum, Dilshan, Warner, Mahela, Sanga, Gayle, and now Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli, are also successful batsmen in the longer format.

This has been one of Australia’s failings. They entered the 2014 T20I World Cup with a team full of hitters, and when it came to the crunch, they failed. The successful T20 teams have had genuine batsmen who bat through the innings and stabilise the innings. Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson are currently doing this with great success. During this period, the Australian team also experienced a few behavioural issues, which lead to several players being dropped for not doing ‘homework’ and coach Mickey Arthur being fired. Oddly enough, during this time, while the T20I team has been struggling, the test and ODI teams managed to reach world Number 1 ranking.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Will the two teams be able to redeem themselves at the ongoing T20 World Cup? Image Credit: bestoft20.com

And the plot just keeps thickening. Just before the teams embarked on the 2016 World Cup, Australia went straight off left field and made some clever changes. They removed the injured Aaron Finch as captain and replaced him with Steven Smith, who is now the Aussie captain in all three formats. After bowing to public pressure, Usman Khawaja, the undisputed king of the Australian cricketing summer, got picked, and even the experienced Shane Watson got a chance to prolong his international career with a recall. Yet, despite thrashing India 4-1 in the ODI series, Aussies still lost the T20 series to them 3-0. But during the recently concluded South African series, they made a few more of those ingenious left field changes, and switched the opening combinations to potentially Khawaja, Watson, and Finch, while dropping Warner down the order to give him more responsibility to hold the innings together. Even the Hit and Giggle king, Glenn ‘the big show’ Maxwell, seemed to have gotten a new found sense of responsibility. All of this resulted in them changing a six match losing streak and winning the series against South Africa. Now, even on the slow Indian wickets, they may have a chance of coming on top.

Sri Lanka on the other hand followed tradition, when Mali, surrounded by an injury cloud, stepped down as captain, a position he obtained when previous captain Chandi dropped himself from the team as well as the captaincy. In another twist, this also resulted in Angelo Mathews being named captain of all three formats. There was also a major overhaul in the selection committee, with the appointment of former legend Aravinda De Silva as head of selection, along with World Cup winner Romesh Kaluwitharana, superstar Kumar Sangakkara, and former cricketers Lalith Kaluperuma and Ranjith Madurasinghe. They reinforced the experience in the squad by bringing former vice captain Lahiru Thirimanne along with fast bowler Suranga Lakmal. Now while this looks good, if you look deeply, there isn’t much to be excited about. With the aging Dilshan and his slow reflexes, the steady-as-you-go Chandimal, and the ‘I struggle to rotate the strike’ Thirimanne spearheading the top order, our batting line up feels more suited for a test match than a T20I. The bowling line up is also not different from the one that has been struggling over the last few months. However, while the timing of this (i.e. just before a World Cup) might not be ideal for your standard cricket team, in true SL cricket fashion, these winds of change may have arrived at our doorstep just like an all powerful wizard, neither early nor late, but at the precise time. The two previous times Sri Lanka won ICC World Cups, in 1996 and 2014, both instances were marred by some controversy (bombs and teams pulling out of playing in Sri Lanka) and sudden changes to the team (the captaincy debacle of 2014), this current situation might just be the bungling change of fortune the team needs.

When the Super 10 phase of the tournament gets underway this week, these two teams, with contrasting approaches and even more opposing management styles, yet who seem to have fared a similar fate in this cricketing format, are heading towards a World Cup. One a defending champion, the other searching for glory ‒ but both playing for pride. Sports creates the best theatre, filled with drama, comedy, inspiration and even tragedy. So let’s sit back and enjoy what will hopefully become a tournament for the ages.

Featured Image courtesy wordlcupschedule2015.com

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