Poya (full moon) is an auspicious day in the Buddhist lunar calendar. So Colombo observed a public holiday on Tuesday with reverence, although cyclonic weather was a problem.
A different sort of cloud has formed over the Sri Lanka’s cricket horizon – a cricket board under fire from many quarters, inconsistency in players’ performances, serial losses and the subsequent erosion of confidence. On Wednesday, the hosts will play a one-off T20 against India at the R Premadasa Stadium, the final act of a fairly long series. And they are staring at drawing a complete blank after conceding the Test and ODI series 3-0 and 5-0 respectively.
On the face of it, a one-off T20 International holds no long-term significance, especially after the World T20 was changed to a four-year cycle. The next global showpiece in this format is in 2020 and from that point of view, Wednesday’s game is only high-octane fun for the spectators. But from the perspective of individual players, especially Sri Lankan cricketers, it’s an audition, with an eye to the near future.
The IPL media rights auction in Mumbai on Monday witnessed mayhem, in a positive sense. Star Sports’ new deal worth Rs 16,347.5 crore or $2.55 billion over a five-year period means every ball bowled in the T20 league from next season onwards will be valued at Rs 23.3 lakh. Every match is worth Rs 55 crore. Given that a fresh player auction is scheduled next year, spending might reach a level of craziness almost similar to the European football market. Top Indian cricketers are assured of their contracts. The Sri Lankans, too, would be keen to get a slice of the pie.
Over the past few seasons, the IPL has seen a gradual dip in Sri Lankan exports. Only three players — Angelo Mathews (Delhi Daredevils); and Asela Gunaratne and Lasith Malinga (Mumbai Indians) – got IPL contracts for the 2017 edition. Muttiah Muralitharan was pretty forthright about the dip. “At the moment, Sri Lanka does not have capable players to play in the IPL. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, there are a lot of good players there. The tournament can have 32 international players; our guys don’t fit into it,” the Sri Lanka spin king and Sunrisers Hyderabad bowling coach had said, adding: “Actually, we are lacking a little bit. We had great players but they all retired. Until the new guys establish themselves, the IPL won’t pick them, because you have to pick the best four players.”
While naming an altered T20 squad, two days prior to Wednesday’s match, a Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) official said the original group was aimed more at the ODIs and not the shortest format. Now some T20 specialists like Jeffrey Vandersay, Vikum Sanjaya and Seekkuge Prasanna, along with three other players, have been brought in. Still the squad looks pretty lightweight compared to the Virat Kohli-led Indians.
Sri Lanka captain Upul Tharanga hasn’t played a T20 match since April 6, against Bangladesh. In 12 years of international cricket, he has played only 78 T20s including internationals. Malinga, Mathews and Thisara Perera are the three seasoned T20 pros in the team. The collective IPL experience of the Indian side easily dwarfs their counterparts.
At the same time, however, Wednesday’s game is an opportunity for some young cricketers from the island to announce their presence in this format. A T20 International against India would be widely viewed and franchises might take note.
Take the case of Akila Dananjaya, Sri Lanka’s brightest spot in a disappointing ODI campaign against India. The 23-year-old spinner rattled the Indian batting in the second ODI at Pallekele, bowling googlies and taking six wickets. He finished the series with nine scalps from four matches.
Spinners, both conventional and mystery, are highly valued in the IPL. Afghanistan leggie Rashid Khan was a case in point in the last edition of the tournament, bagging a Rs 4 crore contract with Sunrisers Hyderabad. Karn Sharma was sold to Mumbai Indians for Rs 3.2 crore despite being an India discard. Uncapped Karnataka spinner K Gowtham got Rs 2 crore from the Mumbai franchise. A sparkle at Premadasa could enhance Dananjaya’s T20 stocks.
The IPL would be preceded by the Big Bash League and the Pakistan Super League. So for young Sri Lankan cricketers, stakes are pretty high in Wednesday’s game in terms of getting a foothold in franchise-based T20 leagues. At the moment, Sri Lankan cricketers are not considered good enough for T20 cricket. South Africa’s newly-launched T20 Global League picked only two Sri Lankans, Malinga and Jeevan Mendis, through the player draft. The match against India offers a chance to initiate a course correction.
For Malinga also, the fixture is important in terms of staying relevant for the IPL. A Mumbai Indians legend, the fast bowler’s international career is now sauntering into the sunset. The cut-throat world of the league cares very little for reputations. At this stage of his career, timely reminders to franchises can come handy.
T20 Internationals, apart from marquee events, are now judged through the prisms of franchise-based leagues. That an IPL match is sold for Rs 55 crore as compared to the Rs 43 crore that the BCCI earns per international game tells a story.