13 March 2019

The team, the team!

Those who watched the match and have heard of it still talk about Sri Lanka’s World Cup victory in 1996. Since then we’ve had a T-20 world title and some great wins here and there, but nothing that could give that ’96 feel’.  No, not even that sweep of Australia recently. 

Until now.

Now we have the 2-0 victory over South Africa IN SOUTH AFRICA. The underdog story has been written many times and from various angles. I won’t go there. The series popped up some heroes or rather a few guys popped up a heroic story. There were iconic performances and iconic images. Too well known now to repeat here. However, Andrew Fidel Fernando, one of my favorite cricket columnists, found the right angle and that warrants mentions. 

In a piece titled ‘Sri Lanka rediscover the taste of freedom,’ he zeroes in on an element in the victory-mix that others missed.  

‘[Dimuth] Karunaratne, feeling more than a little out of his depth, talks to his deputy Niroshan Dickwella, and hatches a plan. Let's not overthink this one, he says. Let's go out. Let's enjoy life. More importantly, let's ensure that no shot is off limits. No bowling plan is too rigid. That no one is shouted down for taking a risk. The coaches buy into the idea. And then, as if on a dime, the whole thing turns.’

Of course, we all know that such a decision has to be complemented by superlative execution on all counts, batting, bowling, fielding and not least of all inspired captaincy. Sustaining it is not easy and time alone will tell whether this ‘freedom-factor’ will fuel Sri Lankan cricket to greater heights.

There’s another little side-story that Andrew picked up. Others may have too, but it was in his column that I read it. Here it is:

‘The winning moment was no-fuss - the two batsmen punching gloves, a dressing room full of grins, the as-yet-uncapped Angelo Perera walking out to the pitch, plucking out a stump, handing it to captain Karunaratne on his way back off the field.’

Angelo, remember, forced his way into the squad with two double centuries in a single match, scoring 201 and 231 for his club NCC against the SSC. It’s been more than 80 years since the last (and only) time this was achieved, when Arthur Fagg scored 244 and 202 not out for Kent versus Essex.

Arguably, such a performance in a club game does not warrant automatic elevation to the test side. Still, no one would grudge Angelo the right to entertain hopes. He wasn’t selected for the first test. Naturally, after that epic win in the first test, only an injury to a batsman would have put him in the picture for a debut. Didn’t happen. 

We don’t know what his contribution was in the dressing room. All we know is that he has team-temperament. He didn’t have grab that wicket. He did though. He didn’t have to give it to anyone. He did though. Touching!

He wasn’t alone in this ‘team thing’. Lasith Embuldeniya, put out of action on the first day itself, was reported to have been batting down a few practice deliveries with one arm in a sling.  ‘If need be…’ was probably what was going through his mind. He didn’t have to bat and no one would have faulted him if he didn’t had Sri Lanka lost 9 wickets. He was ready though.  For the team.  

Kusal Mendis was vilified mercilessly in social media after his poor performance in the first test. People forgot how he (along with Dimuth Karunaratne) carried Sri Lanka’s batting the whole of 2018.  When he received the Man of the Match award he made an observation (which too had been ridiculed by well-intentioned, passionate fans in social media). He said, mildly, that he wasn’t listening to them. He said that his team backed him and that was all that mattered to him.  Fans forget that they are not coaches. Fans forget that a player doesn’t need any additional pressure.  Freedom from such things is important. Dimuth obviously knew.   

It was a team that got Sri Lanka through. Those who played and those who backed them off-field. Reminded me of Dinesh Chandimal’s wide grin after Sri lLanka won the T-20 World Cup, after he, the captain, had agreed to be dropped for the final.  

Little things, all of the above. They matter. They make the gel that keeps a team together.