By Rohith Nair
(Reuters) – The last four years have not been kind to Sri Lankan cricket and the island’s once-powerful side arrive at the World Cup struggling for form under a newly appointed captain who has played a single one-day international since 2015.
Sri Lanka have won 24 of 86 ODIs since stalwarts Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara retired after the 2015 World Cup, with the captaincy changing hands six times since.
The island nation, who were world champions in 1996 and reached consecutive finals in 2007 and 2011, are ranked ninth among the 10 teams at this year’s tournament and have not won a bilateral series against a top-10 nation since 2015.
The side’s form in 2019 has been dire, losing eight games in series whitewashes by New Zealand and South Africa, against a backdrop of political instability at home and the deaths of more than 250 people in last month’s Easter Sunday bombings.
The Lankans have the oldest squad at the tournament with an average age of 29.9 years, but only four of their players have more than 100 ODI caps.
Former captains Upul Tharanga and Dinesh Chandimal, who have played 381 ODIs between them, were dropped due to poor form, and mystery spinner Akila Dananjaya, wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella and opener Danushka Gunathilaka also did not make the cut.
The choice of test captain Dimuth Karunaratne as Sri Lanka’s ODI skipper has raised eyebrows because the opener has played only one 50-overs match in the last four years — against Scotland earlier this week.
Karunaratne’s ability to lay the foundations for an innings is well known in tests but the 31-year-old has two half-centuries to his name in the 18 ODIs he has played since his debut in 2011.
“I was surprised,” former Lankan cricketer Russel Arnold told Reuters earlier this month.
“Sri Lanka needed an opener to steady the ship… I do think (Karunaratne) has a role to play and he should have been brought in earlier, but not as captain.”
Experienced all-rounders Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera will need to fire for the Lankans to do well and much will depend on veteran pace bowler Lasith Malinga, who has taken 43 wickets at previous World Cups.
Malinga, 35, has lost some of his searing pace after multiple knee operations, but he still has the guile to torment opposition batsmen and took a decisive last-ball wicket in last month’s Indian Premier League final.
The side have arguably been weakened by a clash of schedules that, unlike past years, prevented the majority of their players from participating in the world’s biggest T20 competition this year.
“Sri Lanka are an unpredictable team,” former Lankan fast bowler Chaminda Vaas said last month. “It’s now time for young guys to take the initiative. I’m sure when given the chance they’ll grab it and perform well.”
Their campaign begins against New Zealand on June 1.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Parikshit Mishra; Editing by Patrick Graham/Simon Jennings)