Sri Lanka emerge as serious contenders

Winners in 1996, finalists last time, co-hosts this time and second-favourites behind India. But just how good are Sri Lanka?Paul Farbrace, who spent two years as the island nation’s assistant coach from 2007, is confident Kumar Sangakkara’s men can go all the way.”They are well planned, well organised, and have a very good and well-balanced squad,” Farbrace, who left his Sri Lanka post to coach Kent, tells media.”The conditions will suit them enormously. They have been working towards this for the best part of three years, and a lot of effort has been put into selection.”Sri Lanka’s meticulous attention to detail contrasts sharply with the somewhat shambolic preparations of another team. England, says Farbrace “have been chopping and changing all over the place”.But this blog is not about England; it’s about a powerful unit who can draw on the experience of Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene, the exotic bowling of Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis, and one of the most exciting young cricketers around in Angelo Mathews.With such a rich talent base to draw on, have the selectors arrived at the right squad of 15?Global cricket promoter Mahendra Mapagunaratne, a Sri Lankan who coined the phrases “carrom ball” – the flicked-finger delivery developed by Mendis – and “Dilscoop” (a scooped over-the-shoulder shot played by Tillakaratne Dilshan) is not convinced.He wants to know why 37-year-old Chaminda Vaas, a left-arm swing bowler who took 23 wickets in the 2003 World Cup, has been left out.”Vaas has mastered his craft and his experience cannot be easily replaced,” says Mapagunaratne. “He has also developed his batting and can even play in the top order in an emergency.”Sri Lanka may still go on to win the World Cup but Vaas would have made that task that much easier.”Another Vaas sympathiser is commentator and journalist Roshan Abeysinghe, who feels the veteran of 322 one-dayers is “on top of his game.”He adds: “Vaas had a great season with Northants, and though there was an explanation about why Dilhara Fernando was picked – the selectors were going with someone who could bowl fast and replace Malinga in case of injury – in most people’s eyes that argument does not hold much water.”

Abeysinghe also feels the once dashing opening batsman Sanath Jayasuriya, one of the 1996 glory boys and now 41 years old, could have earned himself a final World Cup campaign.”Jayasuriya would struggle to come into the side as an opener now. Dilshan is secure in that role and the other opener Upul Tharanga hit a century against the West Indies recently. But if Sanath had been willing to bat down the order, he could have been considered as an all-rounder to bowl some left-arm spin. He’s still very fit and could have batted at seven.”Farbrace reckons the selectors have probably got it right by calling time on the careers of both Vaas and Jayasuriya.”They have been two giants of Sri Lankan cricket, but the selectors have decided it’s time to move on. It was one hell of a big call to make to drop them, they were desperate to play. But the change had to be made at some point and the selectors were brave enough to make it at the time they did.”

The one bone of contention in Farbrace’s eyes is the omission of Suraj Randiv among the three spin options, with Rangana Herath picked instead.However he does concede that Herath has done “exceptionally well for Sri Lanka in the last two years”, while Abeysinghe notes that he could prove a useful substitute for Mendis against teams such as Pakistan and India, whose batsmen are prone to attack the unorthodox spinner.Farbrace is a Mathews enthusiast, revealing that he was picked as a raw 22-year-old for the ICC World Twenty20 in England to serve a long-term purpose.”His selection for that tournament enhanced his learning very quickly, and coach Trevor Bayliss deserves credit for playing him before he was ready.”Mathews can bat anywhere in the top six and can bowl 10 overs a game. He could emerge from this World Cup as one of the best all-rounders in the world… a Jacques Kallis-type cricketer who can score thousands of runs while his bowling should not be under-estimated.”This World Cup will also feature the last few matches in the career of the mighty Muralitharan, but his impending retirement will not be a distraction to himself or the rest of the team, argues Farbrace.

“Murali has this desire to be the best and is driven by fear of failure. I worked with him when he was about to break the Test wickets record in Kandy, the excitement didn’t get to him then.”That driving desire to be as good as he can is unique in someone who’s such a good player. His never-ending determination, bowling 10 times the overs he needs to in practice, never goes away.”Abeysinghe confirms an excitable buzz began in Sri Lanka many weeks, but says none of it concerns Muralitharan’s farewell.”In most people’s mind he’s already retired. He was given a grand send-off at Galle [where last July, in his final Test, he became the first man to take 800 wickets in five-day cricket.]”The only negative Farbrace can contemplate is the enormous expectation that will be heaped on Sangakkara and co by the home fans.”It is great to have home advantage but Sanga and Trevor will tell the players they are under huge pressure because of the expectation levels. Sri Lankans are fanatical about the World Cup.

“Maybe Vaasy not playing may be an issue in that scenario, but I feel there’s enough quality in this squad.”While you would expect him to back the team he once coached, the respect with which Sri Lanka are regarded is revealed in a recent comment from Matthew Hayden.The former Australia batsman said: “Sri Lanka are the red-hot favourites. They have enough players to succeed in these conditions, besides some extremely experienced and dangerous players. And they are going to push hard.”There will be some very tough challenges in the weeks ahead, and one bad performance from the quarter-finals onwards could prove terminal, but things are looking up for Sri Lanka if an Australian tips them as the likeliest winners – BBC