With Tillakaratne Dilshan set to announce his retirement from Tests, a lot of questions will be asked about the future Sri Lankan cricket. This is a transitional phase for Sri Lanka but can they cope without one of the key members going into an uncertain future, writes Shrikant Shankar.
Every team in any sport goes through a transitional phase, where a set order is replaced by a new one. It is not the easiest of times for any team, especially a successful team. A well-established player or a few well-established players retire or are forced to retire so that youngsters can be blooded in. This process takes time and sometimes decades are spent in rebuilding an entire team. The mileage for any successful team lasts for about six years on an average. There are exceptions of course where teams go the full distance and last for almost a decade.
In cricket, there have been two legendary sides — first the West Indies from the 1970s to 1980s, then Australia from the late 1990s to the near end of the first decade of the new millennium. West Indies have never gotten back to their heydays, while Australia have struggled since the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Brett Lee, Michael Hussey, Ricky Ponting and many more have called it a day.
India’s 1983 World Cup-winning team was great, but the departure of some of their stalwarts led to a down phase in Indian cricket. India were the best team in Tests and One-Day Internationals (ODIs) around 2010 and the early part of 2011. This culminated in India being the top-ranked team in Tests and winning the ICC World Cup 2011. But till the team won the ICC Champions Trophy 2013, the team was in transition and struggled, especially away from home.
Another team facing such a transitional phase is Sri Lanka. For long have the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan carried this team forward. When the trio broke into the Sri Lankan team around the late 1990s and early 2000s, the national team was in the pink of their health. Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Chaminda Vaas, Marvan Atapattu, Arjuna Ranatunga and Muttiah Muralitharan were there in the team. Sri Lanka had won the 1996 World Cup and were among the strongest teams in world cricket at the time.
With Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Dilshan, Sri Lanka reached the final of the ICC World Cup 2007 and the ICC World Cup 2011. They also were losing finalists in the ICC World T20 2009 and ICC World T20 2012. Yes they did not win any of the big prizes, but were always there. After the 2011 World Cup final, Sangakkara handed over the captaincy to Dilshan. But the latter stepped aside and Jayawardene was forced to take over again. Now Angelo Mathews is the leader. But many would believe, Mathews was the default captain, as there are no other candidates. This proves to show that Sri Lankan cricket is facing a tough time ahead.
With Dilshan set to announce his retirement from Tests, it brings together a lot of question that Sri Lankan cricket will face. First and foremost, who will replace him? Sri Lanka were never a powerhouse in Test cricket. But Dilshan’s numbers cannot be replaced easily. He scored 5,492 runs at an average of 40.98. He notched up 16 centuries and 23 half-centuries with a highest of 193 against England at Lord’s. And most of this came as an opener. But above all else, Dilshan played 87 Tests for Sri Lanka — one cannot simply replace experience easily.
Dilshan is older than Jayawardene and Sangakkara, although just in days and months, but that shows that the other two will not stay along for long as well. Sangakkara gave up captaincy so that a new captain is given a chance to prove himself before the ICC World Cup 2015 comes about. But what after the World Cup? The trio is sure to retire sometime after the 2015 World Cup from all three formats. Do Sri Lanka have cricketers who can replace them?
Like all teams before them, Sri Lanka truly face the transitional phase now. The road back to glory will take time. People talk about talent and nurturing it to succeed. But talent cannot be produced at will, it is born. If it was that easy then West Indies and Australia would not have faced such issues. The next five-six years are crucial for Sri Lanka. They must be prepared to face hard times ahead before rising again. Dilshan said that he wants to allow Sri Lanka Cricket to groom another youngster in his place. It is easier said than done.
(Shrikant Shankar previously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)