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“I always asked him that. Even a couple days ago, I was asking him: ‘Can you come and play for us, you know, in this game?’ He’s been in absolute form.” Angelo Mathews had just been asked whether he had asked Kumar Sangakkara to reconsider his retirement and return to his team’s rescue. It was a tongue-in-cheek query. And you would assume so was Mathews’ response. But perhaps there was some truth in it. He couldn’t be blamed for it anyway. It was the eve of Sri Lanka’s second match at the Champions Trophy against India. And Mathews & Co had just concluded a lengthy practice session at The Oval, Sangakkara’s home-ground this English summer. An English summer, during which he has turned scoring centuries into a pastime, having notched up five already — four on the trot.
And can Sri Lanka do with Sangakkara walking out for them on Thursday. If Pakistan, India’s first opponents were a team of relative unknowns, the Lankans are a team, not so much in transformation, as they are in strife. Their batting was out-of-depth against South Africa, and they also lost their stand-in captain and most-seasoned batsman, Upul Tharanga, due to an atrocious over-rate — Lasith Malinga at one point taking seven minutes to finish an over. Then, on Wednesday morning, Chamara Kapugedera, the second senior-most batsman in the side, injured his knee and was ruled out. Kapugedera, who has made nearly as many comebacks as the number of years he’s been around, for good measure managed all of 0 runs against the Proteas. And perhaps the only reason Mathews, who missed the opening game with a calf injury, is playing is because he has no other choice. So to say that the Sri Lankans start Thursday’s match as outright underdogs would be an understatement. For up against them will be an Indian team that seems to have all bases covered and some more.
There was a greenish tinge to the pitch at the Oval. In years gone by, it would have sent panic signals through the Indian dressing-room. But it was the opposition that seemed to be shuddering this time around, with a number of Lankans making the jittery visit to the centre of the Oval to get a feel of what awaits them in a day’s time. India will most probably stick to their four-prong pace attack once again, leaving R Ashwin on the bench, and for good reason.
The Indians by the way didn’t bother much about venturing towards the pitch. They walked straight to the practice wickets on the right corner of the Tenison Terrace stand and got on with their business. It was also around the time the organisers were testing the sound systems around the Oval. And the one song that they kept playing on loop from the time Virat Kohli & Co came for practice and left was Queen’s “Don’t Stop me Now”. And a more apt song they couldn’t have picked, considering the late Freddie Mercury’s lyrics —”Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball, don’t stop me now”—resonated perfectly with the mood in the Indian camp. And they don’t seem in any mood to stop having a ball anytime soon. If anything, they would be crooning those lines to England’s fickle weather Gods, who ensured that their practice at least went off without any interruptions, and in fact under a bright sun.
Thursday’s also Election Day in England. And all the talk around the Tube and in the pubs in London has been focused on the battle between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, with graffiti and posters all calling for a Tory victory. So it’s unlikely that the India-Sri Lanka match will attract too many neutrals at the ground. But the feeling won’t be neutral for Mathews and his young team. They will still walk into an Indian cauldron, some 11,000 in the stands, and 11 very confident and cerebral men.
The Sri Lankan captain sounded very aware of the challenge ahead too. He admitted that after years of having played against Indian teams whose batting line-ups put pressure on the opposition, his team will now have to cope with a “fantastic” bowling attack too. He did try to play down the impact of the partisan welcome his team will get at the Oval saying that there weren’t as many Indians in London as some other parts of the country. (Which, of course, isn’t true as more than half a million British Indians call London home.)
In years gone by, Sri Lankan teams somehow always came to the party in an ICC event regardless of their form outside of the event. But it seems a tall order now, considering their poor performance earlier this week and the severe lack of resources, that they will go beyond the league stages this time around. And Mathews couldn’t help but reiterate in the end how tempted he is to get Sangakkara back on board, and who can blame him.