Cricket: Sri Lanka thrown off course

Stephen Brenkley says the champions are in danger of losing their lustre
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The Independent Online
IF Arjuna Ranatunga is in possession of a new one-day victory plan, as he has promised, now might be about the time to reveal it. Sri Lanka's defence of the World Cup is only four months away - mind you, at their exchange rate, that is probably about 40 matches - and his side are not only in danger of forgetting how to win but now find themselves engulfed in a new throwing controversy involving their most important bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan.

It will need all Ranatunga's wily experience to revitalise them. Defeats in their opening two matches in the Carlton & United triangular series in Australia have brought their recent losing sequence to seven. This does not compare with the 14 consecutive losses they suffered in 1988 but then they were not world champions and expectancy was not their constant companion.

As if that was not destabilising enough it was followed by the news that two umpires had expressed concern over Muralitharan's action to the match referee Peter van der Merwe. This is some way from being called for throwing as the off-spinner was on his last visit to Australia - it will be decided at the end of the tournament if the ICC's advisory panel on illegal deliveries should be informed - but it illustrates that, whatever was said to clear him, doubts persist in some minds. It is bound to have a debilitating effect on the man and his team.

Writing off Sri Lanka would be premature but they are not looking quite the side which transformed the nature of one-day cricket four years ago by deciding that the bowling should be given a monumental hammering from the start. They have batted first on both occasions in the present tournament, failing to make enough runs against England and then making enough but failing to defend them against Australia.

It was last summer in England that Ranatunga declared he had something else up his sleeve. All seemed well then as they won both the Emirates Trophy and the Test at the Oval. Since, there has been a mixture but it is leaning from a bad day on the stock market towards full-blown recession.

"The tail too often hasn't been getting the runs that we expect of them," said their manager, Ranjit Fernando, after the England defeat. "We're looking to get something like 60 to 65 in the last 10 but instead it's been 35 to 40. We have to work on that area."

By the time they played Australia on Wednesday they clearly had worked on it and the 259 they made in 50 overs had never been surpassed by a team batting second at Sydney. Australia got there with nearly four overs left. Sri Lanka used only 13 overs of seam but the Australians refused to be intimidated by spin. Whatever the merits of Muralitharan's action they clearly have it mind that they will be not be subjugated to torture at the crease.

There is vast experience in the Sri Lankan team. Ranatunga has led them more than 170 times in one-day matches and has played nearly 300. Sanath Jayasuriya has made 172 appearances, Tillekeratne almost that number, Roshan Mahanama 102. Chaminda Vaas, their left-arm seam bowler who will do well in England, is only 24 but he has played 58 matches.

The likelihood is, therefore, that they have seen everything in one-day cricket. It is not so varied that it throws up different conundrums in each game. The loss of the great Aravinda De Silva in this series is clearly critical. It is not only his weight of runs but the resultant diminished performance of the other players.

"We will not risk him unless he's fully fit," said Fernando. "He might be all right in two weeks but he might not. We will not bring him back too quickly." The Carlton & United Series is one thing, the World Cup quite another. They will need De Silva there.

Ranatunga's captaincy has also become indispensable. He is calm and in command, the Sri Lankans are forever moving the field and holding up play. If opponents keep on insisting that this does not get to them (and England have not), then it is getting to them. Ranatunga has put on weight again since the slim-line look he brought to England last summer and there is no doubt that his paunch adds something to his strut. Not that it seems to slow him down much between the wickets.

A Sri Lankan victory against England on Tuesday could easily change their fortunes. If nothing else it would persuade the others that they can win without De Silva. But they have not done so yet and no matter if he recovers quickly this time the day is arriving when he will be there no longer.

Fernando knows as much. "Aravinda's very committed to us and we really miss him. But we must realise there will be a time when the younger players have to be exposed."