It’s the differences between the two Asia Cup finalists that make for a fascinating game
ESPNcricinfo – 16 September, 2023
Ahead of the Asia Cup final, the India side is like a Japanese gyuto chef’s knife: comprised of layers of high-carbon steel, and forged with precision. Both the raw materials used and the processes that have tempered them are world-class. Perhaps some final honing remains. But India are effective, balanced, and often beautiful to behold.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are the beaten up cast iron pot that’s been passed down through the family for generations. There is joy in their work, and piquant memories of a storied past about them. But there are cold spots on the base, the lid has seen better days, and the enamel is chipped in places.
This is not to say Sri Lanka are the older team, because in fact, they are the more youthful outfit – two of their bowlers only 20, their top five comprising of four batters under 29. But in this tournament, their style of play has had a throwback quality to it, and as throwbacks go, they could hardly have picked a better era. Between 2007 and 2014, Sri Lanka made five ICC tournament finals. They did so on the back of a phenomenally varied attack.
So it has been in 2023 – they have a rapid sling-bowler in Matheesha Pathirana, a mystery spinner in Maheesh Theekshana (who won’t play the final, but has been an important part of this campaign), a left-arm spinner in Dunith Wellalage, and an offspinner in Dhananjaya de Silva. Scrapping to competitive totals, defending modest scores on spinning tracks, doing just enough to win crucial passages of the game – this is their wheelhouse.
Often they have had luck, such as when Afghanistan failed to realise they could still knock Sri Lanka out of the group stage if they’d hit boundaries to win their match in Lahore. Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf being injured for the virtual knockout match on Thursday helped as well, though Sri Lanka had plenty of injured bowlers who didn’t even make their squad too.
Where India are the purring machine set to race down the straight stretch of road that is a World Cup hosted solely by their board, Sri Lanka are building up speed too, but more like the guy flying increasingly dangerously down a hillside, trying desperately to keep his legs underneath him.
Where India have as their captain Rohit Sharma, one of the IPL’s most successful captains, a reputed tactician, one of the last World Cup’s very best players, and an opener who averages 48.08 with a strike rate of 107 this year, Sri Lanka have Dasun Shanaka, whose last 10 innings read: 2, 9, 24, 5, 14*, 1, 5, 0, 5 and 1.
Rohit’s India have four losses in their last 10 result matches; Shanaka’s team has 14 wins in their last 15 games. Their winning is the main reason the selectors cannot, or perhaps will not, drop Shanaka. But even within this complexity, there are further folds. Many of those Sri Lanka victories came against modest opposition at the World Cup Qualifier. On the flipside, the only completed match in this tournament in which India were pushed, was in their Super Fours encounter against Sri Lanka.
And then there is Shanaka’s marshalling of his bowling resources. Rohit brings a rigour to his strategising, weighing reams of data with his own knowledge, seeking the inputs of many before finalising plans. Shanaka has learned to be loose with his ideas. Sri Lanka had tried to make a new-ball bowler out of Pathirana, but while he is still developing that aspect of his game, Shanaka has taken on some powerplay bowling himself, to good effect. When the occasion has called for it, he’s brought part-timer Charith Asalanka into the attack. In the match against India, Asalanka took four wickets.
It seems almost inconceivable, looking through the team lists, that Sri Lanka can challenge this India side. India are more talented, better drilled, and their resources are greater by several orders of magnitude. There may be a debate about whether Shardul Thakur really adds sufficient value to be in this XI. But in comparison, this is minor. India are a team that have planned, built, refined, are possessed of great players such as Virat Kohli and Rohit, and leave very little to chance.
And yet it is in the cracks of chance that Sri Lanka operate. Where India have made efforts to know everything about themselves and their opposition, Sri Lanka, very clearly do not know much. They don’t know yet where their ceiling is, have not quite nailed down a combination, are led by a captain under monumental personal pressure, and for this game are missing quite literally their entire first-choice attack.
But they have reveled in the twists and turns of tournament cricket, uncovering promising talents in unusual places, and find themselves again, unexpectedly perhaps even to themselves, in another title match in Asia.
In contests between sides who are clinical, and teams that are chaotic, we know which tends to win. But they don’t always.