Missed opportunities and misplaced identities – South Africa and Sri Lanka left with more questions than answers following ODI series.
When Lasith Malinga won the toss and elected to bat in the final one day international in Cape Town, Faf du Plessis could have been forgiven if he had asked his counterpart to reverse his decision. Yet, in any case it might have not mattered – Sri Lanka have struggled with bat and ball throughout the five ODIs so South Africa posting 350-plus may have had the same effect as watching paint dry.
And so, Sri Lanka batted, or did some version of that, with a sorry scorecard of 225 all out, having that familiar feeling of underlying potential in an underperforming, unidentifiable squad. On a pitch that had some pace and bounce, some grip and turn, it would’ve been difficult from the start but once you got in – as Kusal Mendis showed with 56 runs of 84 balls – batting became easier.
It would be easy to conclude that South Africa’s 5-0 drubbing of Sri Lanka would leave du Plessis and Co. with the magic formula for the World Cup in England, but many questions still need to be answered going forward.
The Indian Premier league will hamper any chances of getting together again soon to fine-tune a few chinks, and it doesn’t help that their first warm-up game is against the same opponents who they so unquestionably cast aside without a second glance, so the onus is on Du Plessis and Ottis Gibson to go with their gut instincts.
Right now, the integration of JP Duminy in the middle order may be the go-to, seeing that he has enough experience to guide the likes of Dwaine Pretorius and Andile Phehlukwayo in those pressure moments when the run rate is up and the number of overs is depleting rapidly, or when the total is small but the ball is hooping around like a kookaburra on Red Bull.
“We need to give more responsibility to the guys at number six and seven,” Du Plessis mentioned at the toss – presumably, Pretorius and Phehlukwayo at the moment – yet Duminy’s inclusion could give a selection headache seeing that David Miller, too, bats at number five. Duminy brings his off-spin to the table, however, and so affords Du Plessis the luxury of playing an extra seamer or a handy stop-gap if one of the bowlers is off-colour.
For Sri Lanka, this has been a tour of peaks and troughs, the highs of the test series win pummelled to the ground as they experience the lows of their tame performance in the one-day format. In all five games, Sri Lanka lost two wickets in the opening ten overs. Experienced players such as Upul Tharanga, Niroshan Dickwella and Thisara Perera would fall cheaply without scoring enough runs. Only Kusal Mendis, arguably Sri Lanka’s best batsman at the moment, could come out of this series with any sort of security at number four having accumulated 202 runs at an average of 40.40.
Who is Sri Lanka? What is Sri Lanka? Where is Sri Lanka? These are the questions that could be posed to current coach, Chandika Hathurusingha, as he meets with Sri Lanka Cricket for crisis talks after the conclusion of the ODIs.
The days of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakarra bailing the team out after precarious starts are long gone – the current crop of players are struggling to cement their positions and aren’t approaching the World Cup with any identity that has been set in stone.
Do they want to be an attacking team that bludgeons the ball to all parts in the first ten overs, or do they want to accumulate runs at a steady pace before the onslaught at the tail-end? Teams such as South Africa, England and India are where they are because of a crystal-clear idea of what they want to achieve and how they want to go about that. Without that idea, Sri Lanka will continue to struggle and Malinga’s run of nine losses in nine matches as captain will only grow.
And although the performances of both countries were light years apart, the questions being posed may still hit closer to home. Does South Africa include an extra batsman or go for the extra spin option? Does Sri Lanka adopt a free-flowing approach, or a more cautious one?
Whatever the answers are, they may not have been found in this series where the simple things were executed well by one team, but totally lost to the wind by another. South Africa still have some work to do, this series a missed opportunity to put in the necessary effort to make all the difference, but it is Sri Lanka still looking for a blueprint to follow as the World Cup comes into sharp focus.
Soon, they will meet again. Hopefully by then, both will have a clearer picture of who they want to be.