Inconsistent mavericks: Dangerous Lankans, full of individual talent, can upset Indian applecart if it’s their day

After their victory against Afghanistan in the Super Four game, Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka summed up his team’s performance: “We are a bit of an unpredictable team. We don’t know which Sri Lanka team would turn up.” Though he said this in half-jest, he precisely captured how the team has performed in this edition of the Asia Cup.

At times, they have ranged from sloppy to comical — spilling catches, letting boundaries through their legs, capitulating meekly, bowling profligately. At other times, their performances have fluctuated between resilient and spirited, though never scaling the exceptional heights some of their predecessors in a distant halcyon past have — some of their batsmen have played blinding strokes, some of the bowlers have displayed their unquestionable potential. Sometimes, they have resembled a hotchpotch collection of disenchanted club cricketers, at other times they have demonstrated the togetherness that could conceptualise an upset or two, a streak of volatility and unpredictability that was the hallmark of pre-1996 World Cup winning Sri Lankan teams.

The characteristic extends to their Test teams too — recently they resembled nervous wrecks in the first Test against Australia before trouncing them in the next.

A quick scan of their best 11 affirms that they have no shortage of match-winning sparkle, from Pathum Nissanka and Kusal Mendis at the top of the order to Shanaka and Bhanuka Rajapaksa in the middle to Wanindu Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana at the end. But sparks of talents have only flickered and not blazed. Nonetheless, they are a dangerous group in aT20 tournament, matches often decided by a single dominant hour, or a single stroke of genius. In this regard, they do possess the firepower to rattle India, and should they beat them, would make a mess of the bookmakers’ prediction of an India-Pakistan final. Besides, the comments from the Bangladesh camp that they don’t have “world-class bowlers” have galvanised them.

It was a careless, if not crass, comment. They do possess Hasaranga, a much sought-after multi-franchise leg-spinner. None of India’s batsmen would need a reminder of his prowess or the repertoire he possesses. Last IPL, he hauled 26 wickets in 16 games, leaking just 7.7 runs an over. No bowler in that edition had snared more wickets than him between the seventh and 15th overs either. He is an attacking as well as restrictive bowler.

Like most successful leg-spinners in this format, he primarily purchases his wickets with his wrong-ones, which are propelled from different angles and release points (one has to watch his knee-flex to realise how differently he bends for different deliveries), at different speeds and flight, and using slightly different grips too (often with a scrambled seam). One wrong ’un skids onto the batsman, the other hangs an eternity in the air. Control and precision are pivotal to success, as is the courage to bounce back after getting hit. Hasaranga is not merely about the googlies either, he has a slider and the away-goer that he trades to sow doubts in the mind of batsmen, and is exceptional against right-handers (74 percent of his T20 sticks).

His duel with Rohit Sharma could be as fascinating as it could be engrossing, as Sharma has a storied weakness against leg-spinners. Hasaranga could enjoy a tasty face-off with Suryakumar Yadav, who likes to cut and sweep spinners of all hues. Hasaranga likes batsmen to cut on the back-foot, where he could fox them with bounce and change of speed; he likes them to sweep, where he could beat them by varying his length and skid.

Able ally

Hasaranga is the not the only one who could wreak havoc; so could his fresh-faced ally Theekshana, whose action is modelled on Ajantha Mendis and has a bagful of variations like his idol. Nearly a year old in international cricket, his mystery has been dissected. The standard off-break doesn’t turn much; the slider skids off the surface, the carrom ball kicks off it, and the googly travels slower through the air.

He has several grips. The standard off-break is delivered with the index finger and middle finger spread across wider than more conventional off-spinners. For the carrom ball, he spreads those fingers — the thumb acts as a backrest, the forefinger as the axis and the middle finger for flicking the ball in an anti-clockwise direction. A carrom ball-like grip is used for the slider too, though he doesn’t flick the ball as hard as he does a carrom ball. The googly is, of course, delivered from the back of the hand with a slightly tilted seam and with more wrist into the ball. The arm-speed is slower than for the off-break as well.

Every nut and bolt of his bowling might have been examined on the video analysts’ table, but none of India’s batsmen have played him in an international game and have just glimpsed him in the IPL (only nine games), where he became the youngest to pick a four-wicket haul. So, he does possess an element of uncertainty. More often than not, a mystery spinner is most dangerous when a batsman plays him for the first time, no matter how accomplished he could be. Look no further than Ajantha Mendis, who reduced arguably the greatest batting line-up India had ever produced to ruins in an Asia Cup final and a home Test series. But after he was decoded, his career rapidly crumbled.

On the leg-spin-mystery-spin duet would hinge Sri Lanka’s biggest hopes of an upset. But it would also depend on which Sri Lanka turns up. The spirited or the silly?

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