Sri Lanka goes into its ODI series against South Africa with tremendous confidence after a 2-0 Test series win, but not much else. Sri Lanka has gone 20-39 in ODI matches since the end of the 2015 World Cup with a 6-17 mark in their last five series. The last time Sri Lanka played an ODI series against South Africa, it was a 5-0 sweep for the Proteas. The team’s struggles have started since 2015, but the true culprit is a mismanagement of a “golden generation”. To understand Sri Lanka’s recent downfall in ODIs, we have to go all the way back to 1996.
To be considered a country’s “golden generation”, two things need to happen. The generation must produce all-time great players and the generation must win (or come close to winning) a championship. Some countries haven’t experienced their golden generation yet. Sri Lanka’s golden generation began with an unexpected win in the 1996 World Cup. Aravinda de Silva, one of the generation’s eight all-timers, was the star of the tournament. He led the team with 448 runs and scored an unbeaten 107 to chase down Australia in the final.
Sri Lanka’s golden generation produced 12 great players with eight qualifying in the “all-time” category: de Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Murlitharan, Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Tillakaratne Dilshan. The four great, but not quite “all-time” players: Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Attapattu, Upul Tharanga and Angelo Mathews.
These 12 players played an average of 311 ODI matches from 1996-2015. In this span Sri Lanka won a World Cup, appeared in two other World Cup finals, captured a T20 World Cup after two runner-up finishes and made it to two Champions Trophy semifinals. Only Australia and the West Indies have had more successful runs with their golden generations. Even India’s all-time team hasn’t produced this.
At the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka went heavy with its aging all-time players in what can only be described as an attempt to give all-timers like Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan a championship. Sangakkara scored 541 runs at the 2015 World Cup with four straight centuries to take Sri Lanka to the knockout stage. Dilshan added 395 runs, but Jayawardene only mustered 125 runs over five innings. Sri Lanka had to use 19 different players over the course of the tournament due to aging players withdrawing. Even Malinga barely passed his fitness test to qualify for the squad.
It’s easy to see why Sri Lanka’s cricket board made this decision. Sri Lanka has a population of 20.9 million, which is less than Mumbai’s metro area. It’s not easy to find players, let alone all-time greats. Maybe these guys deserved one more run. It’s also why Sri Lanka is struggling in the ODI format today.
Five of Sri Lanka’s all-time players retired between 2011 and 2016. Three are still active, although Malinga’s position in the international team is shaky. Since 2015, 25 players have appeared in an ODI match from Sri Lanka. These players have played an average of 11 matches. Outside of Sri Lanka’s 12 “golden generation” greats, 82 players appeared in at least one ODI match for Sri Lanka. These players played an average of 14 ODI matches. That is a huge problem. If new players don’t get enough time to develop themselves against international competition, they cannot fit into roles, gain confidence or be fairly evalauted. A board shouldn’t be able to determine a player’s ability on 11 matches. The results haven’t been great so far, but the board’s strategy hasn’t helped the cause. A consistent roster is just as important as results. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s roster construction leaves a lot to be desired.
Take a look at the squad for the team’s ODI series against South Africa. Ideally, you want six batsmen, two all-rounders and three bowlers. Tharanga and Mathews are locks to play, although the former really shouldn’t be in the squad anymore. That leaves five batsmen, one all-rounder and three bowlers.
Sri Lanka has three wicketkeepers in the team and all of them have great potential as batsmen. Kusal Perera, Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella can be a dangerous top order for years to come. With an average age of 25, that trio should be getting as many games as possible.
The other two batting spots should go to Prabath Jayasuriya and Shehan Jayasuriya, but that puts Sri Lanka in a pickle. Three young all-rounders (Dhananjaya de Silva, Akila Dhananjaya and Dasun Shanaka) are left to compete for one spot with veteran Thisara Perera.
Sri Lanka only has four true bowlers in the team, which would make selection fairly straightforward. At least, you would hope. Three bowlers are pacers and Mathews is a pacer in the all-rounder spot. Lakshan Sandakan probably gets in as a spinner but the other two spots are uncertain. And with 25-year Kasun Rajitha having yet to play a single ODI match, 31-year old Suranga Lakmal might steal a spot.
Ideally, Sri Lanka should play the following XI for the entire series: Dickwella, P Jayasuriya, Mendis, Kusal Perera, Mathews, S Jayasuriya, de Silva, Dhananjaya, Shanaka, Lahiru Kumara and Rajitha.
This doesn’t follow your typical roster construction, but it’s the most likely path towards long-term consistency. The average age of this lineup is 25.5. This team isn’t going to win games now, but it’s going to help Sri Lanka’s board determine which players are part of the future. Sri Lanka relied on its golden generation for too long. It’s time to move on.