The last time David Warner came up against Sri Lanka in a T20I series, they couldn’t get him out. They couldn’t stop him either. To the extent that he ended up smashing 217 runs across three innings, which included a blistering ton at the Adelaide Oval.
So, there were no surprises that Warner laughed off suggestions regarding his poor form when they were brought up on the eve of Australia’s T20 World Cup clash against the Sri Lankans. You’d feel pretty confident too about breaking your mini-rut if you were up against a team who you’ve conquered and dominated with no remorse or challenge.
Much like Warner, not to forget Glenn Maxwell, whose numbers against Sri Lanka are even more staggering. The Australians as a team have held sway against the Dasun Shanaka-led outfit in this format since 2016, having lost only twice in 8 matches in that period. And Aaron Finch’s team were all smiles towards the end of their opening Super 12s clash last week, even if they did eventually have to sneak home against the South Africans.
Strangely enough though, despite the numbers being stacked against them, Sri Lanka could well be the team that holds the potential to derail the Aussie campaign in the UAE and briefly wipe the smiles off their faces. And there are a few factors that support that seemingly facetious argument.
To start with, Sri Lanka have been on a roll in this tournament. After having completely overwhelmed their first-round opponents, they showed great depth in overcoming an inspired Bangladesh outfit a few days back. And they’re also nowhere close to the team that Warner and Australia dismantled on home soil back in the summer of 2019.
There’s been a considerable change in approach from the former champions in how they go about their T20I cricket. Their batting for one, now emboldened with some who don’t mind being adventurous, has moved on from having a bunch of accumulators batting around a couple of power-players to the other way around. The best illustration of that came through during their run-chase against Bangladesh where Charith Asalanka and Bhanuka Rajapaksa never let the situation impact their positivity at the crease. And if anything, they romped home in the end as a result.
Their bowling strength, meanwhile, mirrors that of Australia’s to an extent based purely on how their Test fast bowlers have developed their games to suit the shortest format, without ever losing their primary strengths. Both Dushmantha Chameera and Lahiru Kumara will come hard at the Aussies with ball and with their attitudes, but they’ll also consistently bowl hard lengths that have proved very effective in the UAE so far. Much like Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins displayed against South Africa.
Australia’s much-publicised struggles in T20I cricket during 2021 has largely been attributed to them missing a majority of their key players. But another overriding factor in their untoward performances this year has been their inability to tackle quality spin on not just the low, slow pitches they encountered in the Caribbean and Bangladesh but also relatively truer pitches in New Zealand. They’ve in fact lost more wickets to spin than any other team in 2021, 59 wickets in 16 matches and they’ve scored at only 6.60 against spin. They hardly got away against the South African duo of Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi, managing only 45 runs in 8 overs. They also looked pretty clueless against R Ashwin in their warm-up match.
And in Maheesh Theekshana, who his own teammates struggle to pick in the nets, the Aussies might be in store for their stiffest challenge yet. The mystery spinner’s return from injury, which caused him to miss the Bangladesh game, is reason enough for Finch & Co to be very wary.
The Australians might already have high-flying England in their sights as their next big game, but they will take their eyes off the Lankans at their own peril. As we’ve seen already in this tournament, there are no room for slip-ups, especially in Group 1.
When: Australia v Sri Lanka, Super 12 Group 1, October 28 18:00 Local, 19:30 IST
Where: Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai
What to expect: The pitches so far in Dubai have played the way many purists around the world would prefer all T20 pitches to. They’ve not been overly in favour of either the batters or the bowlers but have called for more conventional cricket. The large boundaries have ensured, the way the South Africans went about their chase against the West Indies in particular, that there’s a lot of room for aggressive running between the wickets alongside the big shots. There’s no surprise then that the likes of Virat Kohli, Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Reeza Hendricks and Aiden Markram have had success playing straight-angled shots. And you’d expect the same here though dew could end up playing a significant role as we saw during the IPL matches played here.
T20I Head-to-Head: Australia 8 Sri Lanka 8 (2-1 in T20 World Cups. This will be their first encounter in a T20I world event since 2010.)
Injury/Availability Concerns:The late-night reports of Mitchell Starc limping off from training will be of great concern to Australia, considering the big role he plays for them, especially in the death overs. They do however have a readymade replacement ready in Kane Richardson, who was very impressive in the only warm-up game he played against the Kiwis. This despite Ashton Agar’s very good numbers against Sri Lanka in T20Is.
Tactics & Matchups: Steve Smith has already indicated that he’s in the side as a floater and will only bat at No 4 if there’s a stutter in the top-order, like there was against the Proteas. While Warner is confident that both he and his opening partner are on the cusp of going back to being the dominant pair that they are, a lot of Australia’s tactics with the bat will depend on that happening. The Sri Lanka new-ball pair’s lengths might play into Warner’s hands though. But watch out for Chamika Karunaratne’s change of pace. How Smith and Maxwell in particular handle the middle overs of Sri Lanka’s spin could well decide the way the game goes. Having said that, Adam Zampa will have his job cut out against the left-handers in the Lankan middle-order, who all are very adept at playing the sweep and going aerial with the turn. Expect a lot of googlies from the wily leggie.
Probable XI: David Warner, Aaron Finch (c), Mitchell Marsh, Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis, Matthew Wade (wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc/Kane Richardson, Adam Zampa, Josh Hazlewood
Injury/Availability Concerns: The return of Theekshana is the big news for the Lankans and that should mean he comes straight in for Binura Fernando.
Tactics & Matchups: Wanindu Hasaranga was smashed for 60 runs in the 4 overs he bowled in that series against Australia in 2019. But he’s grown a lot as a cricketer since, and he’s sure to test the Aussies with his energetic spin. In a format that thrives on match-ups, Sri Lanka will be best placed to make sure that their left-handers face a majority of Zampa’s deliveries. It’s also crucial that they don’t get too bogged down in the powerplay overs against the likes of Hazlewood and Cummins, even if it means using their crease and/or feet to put the two fast-bowling heavyweights off their lengths.
Probable XI: Kusal Perera (wk), Pethum Nissanka, Charith Asalanka, Avishka Fernando, Bhanuka Rajapakse, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dasun Shanaka (c), Chamika Karunaratne, Dushmantha Chameera, Maheesh Theekshana/Binura Fernando, Lahiru Kumara