Thursday, March 24, 2011

England coming to Colombo

The first time they came, it was by ship, not just any ship, a cannon bearing warship. Soldiers wearing steel helmets marched on with bayonets and they stuck around for a couple of centuries. English troops are in Colombo again. This time sporting sun hats, wielding willows instead of bayonets, carrying cricket balls and not cannon balls. They are here to take on the Lions.

Sixty years ago, Sri Lankan cricket used to be a gentleman's game. Gentlemen used to be and had to be only English speaking elite from Colombo. Wild haired Malingas and crooked armed Muralitharans were clinging on to metal fences outside of prestigious cricket clubs watching men in white taking tea breaks. Times have changed for Sri Lankan cricket and cricketers. Since independence if there is anything Sri Lanka has made a significant progress on, that is cricket.  It has become part of life, a topic of debate in the parliament and in the street corners. It has pierced through to the smallest village in the country, crossing socioeconomic boundaries and defying ethnic barriers.Over the last two decades players from all corners have rallied together making an unorthodox yet very effective unit, ready to take on the world. And they did it in style in 1996.They named it the Sri Lankan brand of cricket; it is a blend of aggression of the Australians, efficiency of the South Africans,  raw talent of the Pakistanis, passion of the Bangladeshis mixed with a Caribbean flair. The Sri Lankan brand has been a treat to watch.

In this world cup, Sri Lankan team looks more prepared than ever, with a mix of youth and experience in the likes of Mahela and Mathews coupled with the flamboyance and fortitude of Sangakkara and Samraweera. Unlike few centuries ago, this time they are prepared for the Queen's team. In their own backyard, playing against a team known for their weakness in spin friendly surfaces who look visibly tired from being on the road for the past six months, Sri Lankans could not have asked for a better team to play against in a crunch match. Twenty million people are hoping for a reenactment of 1996 quarterfinals - when the English were left to look like a bunch of school boy cricketers by Jayasuriya & co. Although a repeat of that act appears just around the corner, every fan has a lingering skepticism that it might just not happen. There is something about the Sri Lankan outfit that creates a doubt in your mind. It might be the fact that Sri Lanka has not yet beaten a significant opponent in this world cup - beating Kiwis was easy, they had lost a series to Bangladesh just before the WC and was playing without Daniel Vettori. Even against them the Sri Lankan middle order faltered. Malinga has been wayward, except for one game against Kenya, Tharanga looks a bit edgy and Dilshan is due a big score.

Compared to 1996, England has come a long way as an ODI team. They boast a group of utility players in Bopara, Collingwood, Tredwell and Bresnan. Greame Swann looks threatening on spinning tracks, except when there is dew. More importantly England is the only team in this world cup to not to lose a game to a bigger test playing nation. No matter how tired they look, regardless of the battered psychological state of the English camp, when they are up against a formidable side, they seem to pull it off. Can they do it on Saturday on a tricky Premadasa track against the quality of Murali and Malinga? Would they be mystified by Mendis? (Herath might not play, given there is no Kevin Pietersen, the popular victim of every left arm spinner).

A couple of solid performances from the top order, accurate bowling from Malinga and some late over fireworks from Mathews is enough to take Sri Lanka through. We all know Sri Lanka will and can do it. But no one wants to say it, every one gulps the words when they appear to come out, because you just never know. After all it is against the Queen's team, and they invented the game.

An edited version of this was published on ESPNCricinfo Blogs

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