Cricket: Sri Lanka optimistic in trophy defence

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been an unhappy few months for Sri Lanka as they have slipped, been humbled and finally fallen from the state of grace they had occupied in the immediate aftermath of winning the 1996 World Cup. The free-hitting Sri Lankans have gone from penthouse to outhouse and have become every other country's whipping post. Until now, that is.

The World Cup circus has rolled into town and Arjuna Ranatunga intends to lead his side in a successful defence of the trophy. "We would not be here if were not optimistic about retaining the World Cup," he said after an exhaustive net session at the Nursery End at headquarters yesterday.

"It has been a little bad over the last six to eight months, but before that things were fairly good. We won three tournaments and reached two other one-day finals.

"I think it is good that a lot of bad things have happened in the past, it seems to have brought everyone in the squad closer together. We are here to retain the title. We had a bad run and everyone put us down, but I think that was a blessing in disguise, because they thought that we had gone.

"I think it is good when you are written off because then it hits the players really hard and as a result they have been practising even harder and their commitment has been top class for the last two or three weeks in the build-up. Our standard of fielding has been raised thanks to the help we have received from Trevor Chappell. And overall I am happy with the progress we have made in the last couple of weeks."

It is not just the poor run of results that has seen people writing off the Sri Lankans. The English conditions are expected to count against their free-hitting approach, which works well on the subcontinent, where there is a lot less sideways movement.

The Sri Lankans have not committed themselves to opening the batting with Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana; Ranatunga has a number of permutations left, the most likely of which is to use Roshan Mahanama at the top of the order - he is more of a technician than the flamboyant Jayasuriya and his pinch-hitting partner Kaluwitharana.

Sri Lanka have proved extremely adaptable in the past and Aravinda De Silva, their dashing middle-order batsman, has experience of English conditions, having spent a season Kent in 1995 when he became the only Gold Award winner on a losing side after scoring a century in the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Surrey at Lord's.

Last night De Silva, who scored 478 runs off 416 balls in the last World Cup, insisted: "I think we are good enough to adjust to English conditions. I don't think you can write anyone off."