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'Their rise to the top is no fluke': The keys to Sri Lanka’s quiet resurgence

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22nd December, 2021
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If you look at the current ICC World Test Championship rankings, an unlikely contender has discreetly risen to the top of the table and the entire cricket world has barely even noticed.

Nope, it isn’t, Australia who are equal first with them, but neither is it India or England or even the current title holders, New Zealand.

It’s Sri Lanka. What?

Baffling? Confusing? How is this even possible? Sri Lanka, who were made to re-qualify for this year’s Twenty20 World Cup, are currently sitting pretty at number one in the Test Championship rankings?

Sri Lanka, a forgotten and marginalised minority Test nation who are lucky to even play a three-match series, are the top-ranked team? What’s going on here? Has there been a mistake?

I certainly asked these questions myself when I saw the current standings, but a closer analysis into Sri Lanka’s recent performances shows a remarkably different story.

Their rise to the top is no fluke. They have been silently building a formidable team in the shadows throughout this pandemic period and the results of their efforts are slowly coming into fruition.

While they are nowhere near their final product yet, it is evident that coach Mickey Arthur’s extended tenure with the Sri Lankan men’s national team has been an incredibly successful move.

Mickey Arthur

(Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

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So loved was he that when he finally resigned from his coaching role, there was an immense outpouring of gratitude mixed with grief from not only the Sri Lankan players but also the fans, who were deeply thankful for his efforts in turning their nation into a competitive force once more.

This was supported by Arthur himself, who remarked that he was “really excited about what the future has in store for Sri Lankan cricket”.

Before Sri Lanka’s success-starved fans begin daydreaming of their country’s glory days when the likes of Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda De Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene took them to number two in the Test rankings from 1997 to 1999, it is important to remember that this current team has not been truly tested yet.

However, given their showing in this year’s Twenty20 World Cup and recent demolition job of the West Indies in a two-Test series at home, there are promising signs indicating that this new-and-improved Sri Lankan team are no longer hungover after the departures of their irreplaceable legends.

Mickey Arthur’s vision of promoting youth and a strategic focus on regeneration has instilled hope and excitement within the Sri Lankan camp, which has spilt over to the fans as well. There’s certainly no need to watch that 1996 World Cup final on repeat anymore.

A wonderful crop of enterprising, dashing, and aggressive young batsmen have emerged under Arthur’s guidance, and Australian readers should note down their names when Sri Lanka arrive here later in the summer for a five-match Twenty20 series, as these youngsters are genuinely exciting to watch.

Sri Lankan fans.

(Photo by Jono Searle – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

First up is 23-year-old Avishka Fernando. An elegant right-hander who possesses a crisp pull shot, this young man made a name for himself by scoring his maiden ODI ton against the West Indies in the 2019 World Cup, flaying the likes of Sheldon Cottrel, Carlos Brathwaite, and Shannon Gabriel to all parts of the ground. When he gets going, he is absolutely worth the price of admission.

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Other batters that have caught my attention are the gutsy Bhanuka Rajapaksa and Charith Asalanka. Both left-handers have proven to be reliable and resilient fighters in the middle order, giving Sri Lanka a solid backbone that has helped them recover from multiple batting collapses in recent matches.

Asalanka in particular is a fearless character, as the diminutive southpaw is not afraid to unfurl his powerful lofted off drive against even the fastest bowlers.

In the Test arena, the ever-dependable Dimuth Karunaratne continues to plug away at the runs and is still the only Sri Lankan player inside the current top ten for the ICC Men’s Test batting rankings.

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Dhananjaya De Silva has recently discovered a purple patch in form, scoring a commanding 155 not out against the West Indies in the first Test at Galle.

And then there is the inspiring rags-to-riches tale of Pathum Nissanka, a talented stroke-maker who comes from a village so remote, derelict, and poverty-stricken that his family home does not even have a proper address.

The national coaches had to get his rookie contracts posted to his school just to contact him. Nissanka then went on to become only the fourth Sri Lankan to score a Test hundred on debut.

Pathum Nissanka

Pathum Nissanka is one of Sri Lanka’s many young stars. (Photo by Matthew Lewis-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

On the bowling front, the wheels are slowly turning to produce a solid cartel that is adaptable on most surfaces.

Spin has traditionally been Sri Lanka’s favoured weapon. However this year’s Twenty20 World Cup has shown an emphasis on express pace has been prioritised with the resurrection of Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara.

In fact, when they played their Group 1 match against Australia, it was noted that the fastest deliveries in that game were all bowled by Sri Lanka.

Mark Waugh even remarked that he never thought he would see the day when Sri Lanka’s quicks were faster than Australia’s, and it bodes well for more exciting things to come.

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No doubt the new poster boy for Sri Lankan cricket is the enigmatic Wanindu Hasaranga De Silva, who is currently ranked number one in the ICC Twenty20 all-rounder rankings.

A wily leg spinner capable of bowling a deceptively killer googly that would make Shane Warne proud, Wanindu has made a massive impact on the international scene and was duly snaffled by the Royal Challengers Bangalore to unleash his wizardry in the IPL.

He is also a capable lower-order batter that can deliver when required, scoring a blitzkrieg 80 not out in a spirited performance against the West Indies.

Chamika Karunaratne also deserves an honourable mention. He is yet another aggressive young all-rounder of the Marcus Stoinis variety.

Chamika is capable of bowling at speeds of 140 kilometres per hour plus and provides useful runs when needed, often being required to bail Sri Lanka out of stressful situations.

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While success in Twenty20 and ODIs does not necessarily correlate towards the same outcome in Tests (as England have shown), Sri Lanka finally have a team that can pose a formidable threat in this current ICC World Test Championship if groomed and guided in the correct manner.

From being thrashed by England at home in January 2021 to bouncing back and duly destroying the West Indies at the same home ground in December of the same year, this 12-month period has been a wonderfully productive time for Sri Lankan cricket as they find their feet to become a fiercely competitive side once more.

With Mahela Jayawardene now succeeding Mickey Arthur as head coach and a relatively comfortable pathway towards reaching the World Test Championship final, there is a huge opportunity to witness a new golden age of Sri Lankan cricket.

Whether this current team realises it or not remains to be seen.

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