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Sri Lanka gets rid of the 'chokers' tag
by Vijay Jeedigunta
Aug 13, 2006
With the entire world cricketing media focusing on Dean Jones’ racist slur, what most cricket fans may have overlooked is the important transformation that’s been taking place in the whole Sri Lankan cricket team’s mindset. In four of the last five tests that they played, they performed in a manner which was not seen in their 25 year test history.

The Lankans saved the 1st test against England at Lord’s with a fighting century from their captain Jayawardene and vital contributions from all of their tailenders after being followed on with 359 runs in arrears. They squared the series in the 3rd test at Nottingham with Murali’s spin magic after losing the 2nd at Edgbaston.

Then with that record breaking 624 partnership which consumed almost two days of the test they still found enough time to bowl out South Africa on the final day without letting it become another boring draw at Colombo (SSC). Finally emerging winners in an amazingly hard fought and a close test match. Perhaps for the first time ever in 164 matches that they played ever since they attained test status, they did not choke while chasing what was the sixth highest run chase in test cricket.

It’s been a while since Sri Lanka was able to finish three very close games against major cricketing nations and come out winners. In fact most of the games that Sri Lanka won were never tight finishes. They let slip many a test after being in a winning position and one crucial wicket was enough to make them choke. They always wilted under pressure and the opposition almost all the time took advantage of it.

The 2000 Test match at Kandy against South Africa and the 2004 test at the same venue against Australia are two test matches that come to my mind which shows how vulnerable they were when the game went to the wire.

In the former test, they lost the test by a margin of just eight runs while chasing a modest total of 177. They were 161 for 6 at one point and were just four boundaries away from a remarkable victory. Arjuna Ranatunga who came into bat when Sri Lanka was reeling at 4 for 21 raced to his 50 in 36 balls and added 109 runs for the 5th wicket with RP Arnold. Sri Lanka was cruising along comfortably at 130 for 4 with Ranatunga on 77 of 82 balls and Arnold on 40 of 98 balls and just 37 more runs needed for victory with 6 wickets in hand.

Then two wickets fell in quick succession and changed the whole scenario. With the tail now totally exposed, Ranatunga thought he needed to switch gears and stopped playing his natural game. That made South Africa to come right back into the game with an attacking field and aggressive bowling. Though Ranatunga took the total to within 16 runs of target once he got out for 88, giving an easy catch to Jonty Rhodes at Silly mid-off of the bowling of Nicky Boje, yes, the same bowler who went for a leather hunt in the first test of the just concluded series, the Sri Lankan tail folded out adding just 8 more runs.

For those who were watching that it almost seemed that Sri Lanka did not want to win the test match. It simply lacked the will to win. It is anybody’s guess what might have been going through the minds of five members of the current Sri Lankan squad ST Jayasuriya, DPMD Jayawardene, KC Sangakkara, WPUJC Vaas & M Muralitharan who were all part of that heartbreaking loss when, duing the just concluded test, Malinga joined Maharoof at the crease with Sri Lanka needing just 2 runs for a victory.

Another test match where Sri Lanka succumbed to a high pressure situation was played at the same venue Kandy in 2004. This time playing against Australia, Sri Lanka bowled out Australia for a paltry total of 120 in their first innings which included Muralitharan’s 500th wicket. In reply to that Sri Lankan batting collapsed and at the close first day’s play were 92 for 7. Next day, Chaminda Vaas played a magnificent innings to ensure a lead for Sri Lanka.

Even then when Muralitharan joined Vaas after the fall of 9th wicket at 132, Sri Lanka had a slender lead of 12 runs. But Murali played a cavalier innings of 43 in just 28 balls and added 79 runs for the last wicket with Vaas who remained unbeaten on 68. Australia piled up 442 runs in their 2nd innings with huge centuries from Adam Gilchrist and Damien Martyn in a partnership of 200 runs for the 3rd wicket setting a target of 352 for Sri Lanka, exactly the same target that Sri Lanka successfully chased the previous week.

At the end of the fourth day Sri Lanka were in a comfortable position of 301 for 7 and needing just 51 more runs on the final day. With the 8th wicket pair Vaas and Lokuarachchi having already added 29 runs Sri Lanka was sensing a victory on final day. They took the total to 319 before Vaas threw his wicket away by playing a slog-sweep of Warne’s bowling giving a straight forward catch to Justin Langer at mid wicket, who was put in that position purposefully after Vaas gathered couple of boundaries playing the same shot.

Sri Lanka needed another 32 runs with just 2 wickets in hand with the target looking more imposing than it was but not impossible. But living up to their reputation of bursting like balloons in high pressured situations , they lost the last two wickets for just 5 runs and left Australia victors by 27 runs.

The same five members of the current Sri Lankan team, who were part of the earlier debacle against South Africa along with Tilakaratne Dilshan experienced the ignominy of losing a test match in a close finish. Sri Lanka again looked as if they were happy with losing and ending the agony rather than withstanding the pressure.

So the recent test against South Africa in which they came out victorious by one wicket in an unforgettable thriller is a stunning revelation that the team at last made a paradigm shift and figured out how not to succumb to the pressure in close finishes. Who gets the credit for this major transformation in their mental attitude dealing with these closely contested and to-the-wire games is highly debatable?

Depending on to whom your allegiance is towards, you may chose your candidate in the form of Mahela Jayawardene, their flamboyant captain or Muralitharan , their spin wizard or Tom Moody, their motivating and inspirational coach or the brains behind the team selection headed by Asantha De Mel. But in the end it’s the entire Sri Lankan team that should get the credit for showing a tough mindset in touching the finishing line without succumbing under high pressure situations like the one they have undergone last week.

This is only the beginning and it appears as if we will be seeing many more performances like that from the rejuvenated and non-choking Sri Lankans for a long time to come.

Comments? Please write to venu@dreamcricket.com
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