In a dramatic nadir for the former champions, Sri Lanka owe their place in the preliminary round to the fact that they were ranked outside the top 8 sides at the rankings cut-off on December 31 2018. While they, unlike their three opponents in Group A, were spared the indignity of having to go to the Global Qualifier itself, the format of the ‘First Round’ that they find themselves in means they have little room if they are to make the Super 12s. With just three games to play and only two berths on offer, a single loss might be enough to end their tournament hopes. Though they remain favourites against all three individually, any of Ireland, Namibia or the Netherlands are capable of upsetting the Sri Lankans even at the best of times, and these are not the best of times for Dashun Shanaka’s team.
Though a cut-off set almost three years ago may seem a shade unjust, Sri Lanka’s ranking has not improved since. Having won just three of their 20 official T20Is over the past year, they enter the tournament low on form and confidence, with a side unsettled by the suspensions of Kusal Mendis, Danushka Gunathilaka and Niroshan Dickwella following their best-forgotten tour of England. Unusually for a Full Member side, this Sri Lanka squad had less cumulative international experience than their three group opponents. Nonetheless, they remain favourites albeit to progress from the group, two warm-up wins over Oman and another in their first official lead-in match against Bangladesh would have lent them a degree of confidence. Worries remain at the top of the order, however. Oman’s seamers reduced Sri Lanka to 21 for 3 by the 5th over before a middle-order recovery in their first unofficial prep game, and another collapse followed against Bangladesh, where they stumbled to 79 for 6 before Avishka Fernando and Chamika Karunaratne performed an impressive rescue job. Fernando’s form and Karunaratne’s increasingly impressive showing with the bat in the lower order adds a degree of “bouncebackability” to offset an unreliable top four, but given the unforgiving nature of the group format, Sri Lanka will hope not to be relying on them unduly.
Danger Man: Wanindu Hasaranga may have had a forgettable IPL, spending most of it alongside Dushmantha Chameera on RCB’s bench, but as a purveyor of quality legspin and a brash counter-attacking cameos with the bat, Hasaranga will doubtless have been the one Sri Lanka player dominating the screens of opposition analysts in the lead up to the tourney.
Rising Star: Avishka Fernando has generally done his best work for Sri Lanka in 50-over cricket since coming back into the side in 2019, but looks to how found his feet in the shorter format at just the right time. With the top order looking brittle, Fernando ability to play the role of batting backstop and finisher lends the Lankan batting card a degree of resilience it sorely needs.
Key Question: Kusal Perera carries concerns about both fitness and form, but remains the bat that will most worry opposition bowlers. With early runs likely to be the easiest to find, exploitation of the powerplay will likely prove decisive and the ‘keeper-opener, rested for the Oman series and out early against Bangladesh, will need to rediscover his form in a hurry if Sri Lanka are not to find themselves in a real scrap.
Strengths: Despite a poor run of white ball form Sri Lanka remain favourites to get through the group. Their comparatively young squad still has the benefit of greater experience against top-eight opposition compared to their group opponents, as well as boasting players of proven world-class in Chameera, Hasaranga and Perera. The relatively new-look side also suffers less from the traditional disadvantage of Full Members facing Associates, namely that the opposition knows them better than vice-versa.
Weaknesses: With a brittle top-order, a new captain and a somewhat unsettled squad, there may be a risk of panic creeping in if Sri Lanka’s plans don’t bear immediate fruit, especially as they enter the group phase under the burden of unreasonable expectations back home. While the positive mood in the Sri Lanka camp itself is likely to be somewhat tempered by a measure of respect for the opposition, in contrast to the overweening confidence of the Sri Lankan press (and board) who regard the qualifying phase as a “formality,” nonetheless the pressure on this Sri Lankan side will be immense, especially in comparison to that on their opponents.
Past Highs and Lows: As past winners of the tournament, having to endure the indignity of a poorly-disguised qualifying round is in itself a low-point in Sri Lanka’s history at the T20 World Cup, though surely less painful than the improbable defeat of arguably their finest team in front of a home crowd in the final of the 2012 edition. If lifting the trophy itself is of course about as high as it gets, Sri Lanka will doubtless make sure their group rivals also remember the time they bowled out the Netherlands’ own most famous T20 side for a mere 39 runs on the way to the title in 2014.