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Dasun Shanaka backs inexperienced Sri Lanka to go deep: ‘I think we’ve struck a good balance’

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Says his side has the variety and depth to deliver; thinks young Pathum Nissanka can “make this tournament his own”

Sri Lanka may have had a horror year in terms of squad building and preparation, and the biggest tests undoubtedly lie ahead, but that has failed to dull captain Dasun Shanaka’s optimism ahead of the Men’s T20 World Cup. Drawing parallels to the vintage side that won the 2014 tournament, the Sri Lanka captain feels that his current side has similar depth and variety, something he believes could see them potentially go a “long way in this tournament” – even if they lack considerably in terms of experience.

“If you recall, that squad had a lot of variety and depth. And with the youngsters we have coming through now I feel have the same potential, but the only thing lacking is the experience,” Shanaka said, speaking on a captains’ Zoom call. “If our guys perform to their strengths I feel they can go a long way in this tournament. Our fans in Sri Lanka have been waiting a long time for us to be successful, and I hope we can make them proud.”

Much of Shanaka’s optimism stems from the balance the team has seemingly struck in the past few weeks. For most of the year Sri Lanka’s white-ball batting blueprint had centred around the likes of Danushka Gunathilaka, Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Mendis, but following the trio’s ban for breaching curfew and bio-bubble protocols, the last few months have seen the Sri Lankan think-tank mix and match several options in the top and middle order with little success.

However, following a training camp last month, which consisted of several intra-squad matches geared towards nailing down roles for each player, Sri Lanka seem to have stumbled on something resembling balance.

Avishka Fernando has been a revelation at No. 4, Chamika Karunaratne and Shanaka have shown promise in their roles as finishers lower down the order, and in the bowling department there are two quicks who can regularly dish out speeds touching 140kph, and spinners with as many variations as you’re likely to see all tournament.
“We were not able to perform up to the mark in the last few years, but still the strength of our squad is very good. We’ve got two guys coming from the IPL [Dushmantha Chameera and Wanindu Hasaranga], Kusal Janith [Perera] at the top of the order and Avishka Fernando, who is going well, coming in at No. 4.

“We are settled with our batting line-up. We’ve recently changed our line-up a bit – I think we’ve struck a good balance.”

“If our guys perform to their strengths I feel they can go a long way in this tournament. Our fans in Sri Lanka have been waiting a long time for us to be successful, and I hope we can make them proud.”

Dasun Shanaka

The only point of debate, combination-wise, might be at the top of the order, with the opening combination still unsettled. Sri Lanka have tried out three different pairs in their last four matches, with one of Dinesh Chandimal, Perera and Dhananjaya de Silva partnering Pathum Nissanka. Indeed, despite being a last-minute addition to the squad, Nissanka seems to be the only certainty in terms of Sri Lanka’s opening combo, and Shanaka is backing the highly rated youngster – who has yet to make his mark in white-ball cricket – to show his class on the biggest stage.

“He’s been a guy coming through the system, so we know how capable he is. Still, when you come to the biggest stage you have to make your mark by scoring good runs. I feel he will make this tournament his own and make it count.”

Shanaka has far fewer concerns is in the bowling department. Even with Nuwan Pradeep being ruled out of the tournament with an eleventh-hour hamstring injury, Sri Lanka have in Chameera and Lahiru Kumara two bowlers capable of clocking high speeds.

Chameera’s 2021 T20 record in particular has been worthy of note, with his 15 wickets in 12 T20Is and an economy rate of 6.51. Needless to say a fit Chameera is integral to Sri Lanka’s plans.

“Going with two main fast bowlers, they give a lot of quality to the squad. And Associate nations, they don’t face a lot of 140+ fast bowlers.

“Obviously losing Pradeep is a concern. He had been bowling brilliantly over the last six months, and we were counting on him during this tournament, but still what we can get from Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha is massive.”

In the spin department, meanwhile, Sri Lanka boast the No.2-ranked spinner in the world in Hasaranga – a 2021 that brought 20 wickets in 12 matches with an economy rate of 5.59, tells its own story – while in Maheesh Theekshana Sri Lanka have the latest from their production line of mystery spinners. Akila Dananjaya also provides experience and guile, even if he is yet to scale the heights he frequented prior to a change in bowling action.

“He [Hasaranga] has been amazing over the last two years, and now he’s sitting in the No. 2 spot [in the rankings]. He’s very hard to pick at times, because he bowls from a lower angle. Meanwhile, along with Wanindu, we also have Maheesh Theekshana – that’s two young, exciting talents. Going forward I feel that they will do a really good job for the team.”

Sri Lanka also have one final ace in their corner in Mahela Jayawardene, who recently took up a role as consultant coach. During his stint with Mumbai Indians in the IPL, Jayawardene has proven himself as one of the most tactically astute minds in world cricket, and Shanaka feels having him in his corner is proving invaluable.

“He’s been amazing over the years, and tactically he’s brilliant. As a captain, he’s been giving me a lot of support in the field. For me, tactically he’s the best in the business. He’s been a real help to all of us.”

Sri Lanka begin their T20 World Cup campaign against Namibia on 18 October.

‘We have to decide what is good for CSK’ – Dhoni on his future with the franchise

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Suggests that Super Kings ought to retain players who can form their core “for the next ten years”, but quips that he’s not quite done yet

MS Dhoni has not shut the door on continuing with Chennai Super Kings beyond IPL 2021, though he said that the final decision would be taken keeping in mind what would work best for the franchise, given the upcoming auction will offer franchises – including two new ones – the chance to majorly revamps their squads.
“We have to decide what is good for CSK you know. It’s not really about me being there in the top three or four, whatever the retained number of players is,” Dhoni told host broadcaster Star Sports, after having lifted his fourth IPL trophy with a 27-run win against Kolkata Knight Riders. “It’s about making a strong core and making sure the franchise doesn’t really suffer, because it will be an auction where you have to make a team for the next ten years. Definitely in 2008, the core group carried on for more than ten years. We’ll have to have a hard look as to in the next ten years, who are the people who will contribute in a similar manner.”

The BCCI hasn’t yet released what the retention rules will be for the eight existing franchises ahead of this mega auction, scheduled for January 2022, and how much of the auction purse retaining players will eat into. Given the cycle of mega auctions, the next one after 2022 is unlikely to take place before 2025, and Dhoni seemed to be suggesting that Super Kings ought to make a pragmatic decision and retain those players around whom a long-term core could be built.

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WATCH – Jadeja takes two sharp catches to thwart KKR

However, when congratulated on the legacy he had left behind at Super Kings – with four titles, nine appearances in the final, and qualification for the playoffs in every season they participated in except IPL 2020 – Dhoni enigmatically said: “But still, I haven’t left [it] behind!”

Earlier this season, too, Dhoni had said: “You’ll see me in yellow next season but whether I’ll be playing for CSK you never know.”

Reflecting on the period of sustained success he and the franchise have had, Dhoni said being clinical in the playoffs is crucial.

“Every final is special. But also, if you start looking at the stats, you may say we are the most consistent team that loses in the finals. Because that is also a fact. But there have been a few finals where we lost because of that one brilliant performance or a span of 15 minutes where something happened and we lost the game.

“I feel it’s very important to come [on] strong, especially in the knockout stages. Give performances where you don’t let the opposition creep into the game. That’s something that we made a conscious attempt to do. I hope that in the coming seasons, CSK will be known for that: when you’ve got a chance to win the game you know, very plain and simple, win it and move forward.”

Dhoni hasn’t been known as one to engage in long team meetings and strategy sessions, and he said that was the way he had operated in IPL 2021 too, using Super Kings’ practice sessions as opportunities to talk to the players.

“We don’t really talk a lot. It’s more one-on-one conversations,” Dhoni said. “I feel our practice sessions are more like meeting sessions also. It’s more relaxed, people are more open and they talk and we see as to what is really happening. The moment you get into a team room and start talking about stuff, there is a different sort of pressure. As cricketers, I feel 20 minutes is the maximum we can have the concentration for. I feel our practice sessions have been really good and that’s where we have communicated very well with the players.

“You can’t really win without having a good team. But also individuals. Once you get into the knockouts, it changes from a team sport. It also becomes an individual sport. You may come up with ten minutes of special performance and that can really help you win the game. It is a team sport, but the moment you get into the knockout, [you need to] make sure that if you are somebody who is doing well, you keep doing well. And if you have not contributed a lot, it could be the one or two performances that really help the team win the trophy.”

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

James Anderson sets sights on Steven Smith as road to the Ashes begins

After the cut-and-thrust of his duel with Virat Kohli in this summer’s India series, James Anderson says that he is setting his sights on the main man in Australia’s line-up, Steven Smith, as he prepares to embark on his ninth Ashes campaign and his fifth tour Down Under.

Smith proved to be England’s nemesis in each of the last two Ashes campaigns – the 4-0 victory in Australia in 2017-18, when he amassed 687 runs at 137.40, and the 2-2 defence of the urn in England in 2019, when he exceeded even that tally with 774 at 110.57, including twin hundreds in their opening Test victory at Edgbaston.

Anderson, however, has unfinished business in the Ashes, having limped out of the 2019 series after bowling only four overs in that same Edgbaston Test. But after relishing the renewal of his rivalry with Kohli last summer – a man whom he had not dismissed for seven years prior to his first-ball wicket at Trent Bridge in August – he’s confident of carrying the fight to Smith when their paths cross again at the Gabba on December 8.

“As a bowler you always look at the best player, and for me over the last three, four or five years, Steve Smith’s been Australia’s best player,” Anderson told Fox Cricket’s Road to the Ashes podcast. “He’s been the one they rely on for their volume of runs, obviously supported by guys around him like [David] Warner and [Marnus] Labuschagne recently. But he’s been their go-to in the last few years, so he’ll be the one that we will be keen to get out early.”

Even at the age of 39, and more than a decade on from his starring role in England’s last Ashes victory in Australia, in 2010-11, Anderson remains the leader of England’s Test attack – and all the more central to their hopes of success now that England have had to veer away from their original plan of hitting Australia with pace, with the injured Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes to the fore, and revert instead to a more forensic approach from their seam attack.

“We’ve got to start well. The Gabba in particular is huge for us,” Anderson said of the series opener in Brisbane on December 8. “If we can get one-up on a few batters early, then that can have a real snowball effect throughout the series.

“Bowling in Australia is not necessarily more difficult, it’s just different,” he said. “In England the Dukes swings more often than not, and with the wickets we play on, you can get some seam movement as well. But you’re not going to get much swing with a Kookaburra, so it’s just about trying to hit good areas. You’ve just got to be relentless, and so accurate. And that’s where people do struggle.”

Since the last Ashes tour, in which he topped England’s averages with 17 wickets at 27.82, Anderson has amassed a further 109 at 22.88 in 32 Tests – 15 of which came at 24.66 against India this summer, including a first-innings five-for at Lord’s and figures of 6 for 3 in eight overs as India were bowled out for 78 on the first day at Headingley. However, Anderson claimed, it was his one-on-one battle with Kohli that gave him the most pleasure.

“This summer was probably my favourite contest with Virat,” Anderson said, after dismissing India’s captain twice at a total cost of 64 runs in the course of the four completed Tests. “We’ve had a few good battles over the years, both in England and India, but this year was certainly my favourite.

“I got him out a few times but also he got some runs as well, and we had a battle on the field where there was definitely a mutual respect there. It was in a really nice manner, if that makes sense. Obviously we were going at each other, but it was in a in a well-spirited way. So I really enjoyed that.”

Anderson is arguably bowling with more skill and control now than at any previous stage of a career that has already spanned 18 years, 166 Tests and 632 wickets. But while he puts his longevity down to a combination of a lithe body, a strong fitness ethic and an undying passion for the game, he goes into the Ashes with a degree of realism about the toll that the run of five Tests in six weeks is likely to take on his body.

“I will do exactly what I did in our summer,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be playing all five, but I’d be happy with three or four.

“You manage it as you go through the series,” he added. “If any of the bowlers’ workload spikes – if we do a 50-55 overs in a Test match – you’ve got to look at the next one, and if it’s sensible to play because they come so thick and fast.

“We’ve got decent squad of bowlers, so we can rotate a little bit, as we have been for the last 18 months to two years. The likelihood of playing all five at my age, to be honest at any age in Australia, [is slim]. It does take a lot out of you, especially in the heat in some of the venues. So we just have to wait and see.”

Either way, he’s one of the England players with few qualms about taking part in the series, as the tour awaits its final rubber-stamping after weeks of negotiations over the quarantine conditions that the tourists and their families can expect to face.

“It’s been a long few weeks of discussions, but it’s great that we’re all getting on the plane and can’t wait to get going now,” Anderson said.

“My family won’t be coming out there,” he added. “I’ve got two kids at school, so any sort of quarantine just means that they can’t get the time to come over. But for those guys with younger families, and particularly those guys who play all formats, it’s a long time away from home.

“We’ve spent two years, pretty much, in bubbles and not seeing families, so to have another three months away from them, especially over Christmas and New Year, would have been tough.”

There’s been a fair bit of reaction to England’s stance ahead of the tour, from the likes of Sir Ian Botham on the home front and the Australian media Down Under. But Anderson has seen it all before, right from his very first England tour in 2002-03, and has plenty of advice for the less experienced members of the tour party.

“As with any Ashes series there’s always a lot of noise around it,” he said. “We’ve already seen that a little bit. There can be distractions from outside of the actual cricket, but what we do on the field, that’s where it matters. That’s where the series is going to be won and lost.

“So it’s about trying to get ourselves in the best possible mental space, and skills-wise getting ourselves in the best place, on December 8 at the Gabba, and improve on what we’ve done over our summer.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket