Forward or back: which way for Sri Lanka on shaky ground?

Lasith Malinga in action in Sri Lanka's World Cup opener against New Zealand
Afghanistan v Sri Lanka, World Cup 2019, Cardiff June 03, 2019

If the Sri Lankans had to pick a ground in the UK where the grace of the gods and good fortune would fall their way, Cardiff would not be it. Not only have Sri Lanka lost every one of the six matches - one Test and five ODIs - they have played at Sophia Gardens, the results have been dire. Be it the 136 all out to New Zealand two days ago in their world cup opener, losing a spot in the Champions Trophy final to India in 2013, or a second-innings collapse from hell.

In this World Cup squad, Thisara Perera and Suranga Lakmal are survivors of the epic high-speed meltdown of 2011, when Sri Lanka, left to bat for no more than a session and a bit, caved in for 82 in 24.4 overs.

It is not the kind of record to be reminded of when trying to get a foothold in the World Cup after an opening fixture that had them get booed off the ground. Cardiff is not the kind of place Sri Lanka produce their best, except on Tuesday they have no choice. Given a tongue-lashing in Sinhala by Lasith Malinga, demanding that the team take the loss against New Zealand personally, and their confidence at a low ebb, it is perhaps unreasonable that Sri Lanka find themselves in the squeaky-bum seat after one defeat in a long competition.

But it is Sri Lanka's poor ODI form in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup that has their opponents unafraid to diss them. Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib saying cheekily, "one-two years Sri Lanka have been struggling in one-day matches, we have the opportunity to do well against them. If we played 50 overs in batting maybe we will beat them." He did respectfully add, "But they are also a good team, Sri Lanka, we cannot take easy."

Sri Lanka know that their best chances lie in a full 100-overs game, actually, because should weather forecasts of regular rain on Tuesday come true, Afghanistan's heavier hitters stand a better chance than their own under-confident line-up.

Confidence is an ephemeral thing and the lack of it, says Ashantha de Mel, chief selector and also Sri Lanka's team manager at the World Cup, can also permeate across decision-making. De Mel pointed out that while he was involved in picking the XI in the match against New Zealand, he stayed away from what followed. "It is not my area, not under my purview... but we underperformed. Looking from outside, from layman's point of view… they look a little low in confidence… they are tentative, caught in two minds."

De Mel was speaking to Cricday and when asked about the much-criticised choice of having Angelo Mathews move down the order from No. 5 to No. 6, said it came from a decision not to expose Mathews to the New Zealand seamers, having lost three wickets in the first 10 overs. "It could have worked, it might not have worked… If you are in confidence (sic) you won't make that kind of call… my point in telling you low in confidence is in telling you when they sent another guy in, because they were not sure. But if you are sure you will go in and take the brunt… when you are low in confidence you always try to take the safer route instead of taking the bull by the horns and being up front."

Mathews he said had played 200 games, and had "much more experience than the guys who went [in his place]… That I am just saying that is one of the reasons I feel they are low in confidence… when you are trying to move the batting like that you are not sure of yourself." Sri Lanka's problem was not one of ability, he was sure, it was one of a mindset into which they had slunk. "We had a bad game, we understand that, meaning it was really bad, I don't want to look back, I'm telling our team to look forward… our focus now is to beat Afghanistan."

While de Mel spoke of forgetting the past and moving ahead, Malinga threw an entire basin-full of guilt and mortification at his teammates - only when asked questions in Sinhala. "When a game starts, it doesn't matter that they are the number one or number ten in the ICC rankings because the scorecard reads zero without any wickets or runs." The defeat against Afghanistan at the 2018 Asia Cup, he said, had to matter, "We can't go to that match without thinking about that loss. Each player must realise how to approach such a game. Therefore a 50-over game or a shortened game due to rain, we must adopt to those situations because it's a must-win for us tomorrow."

To imagine that a team that has made three World Cup finals, winning one, and the semi-finals in 2003 (plus three World T20 finals in the last decade), must teeter nervously against a team that only became an ICC member in 2001, is beyond the pale for a proud cricketing country and its fans. The question of every man's internal confidence or his skill deficit became secondary - Malinga's address to his teammates was almost biblical.

"We can't repeat the same mistakes over and over. As a senior player and as a member of the squad, I hope everyone will have that fear of not doing their duty and shame of losing. Everyone must realize that it's a must that they perform because if not our cricket would not go forward."

Forward or back? That's the damn problem with being tentative. On Tuesday, Sri Lanka will decide what step they will take.

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