Sri Lanka are the team you want to love, and why not? In 16 men’s Asia Cups – across ODIs and T20Is – they have made 12 finals and won six.
They might not have the big guns of the past like Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene or Muttiah Muralidaran, but in Dasun Shanaka, they have a captain whom the fans love, and who has led a turnaround in terms of results. And in Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama and Charith Asalanka, there’s a young but strong middle order developing in white-ball cricket, something which often gives its fans cheerful moments.
“Fans have been amazing in the recent past,” Shanaka said. “The days the guys have performed has attracted more crowds to the game. The youngsters have been amazing in the last two years, and the record is good. The fans see that we are fighting in the middle, whatever the end result is. That is what is important.
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“Even in the India game, we fought after the [first] ten overs in the bowling. Fans like to see the kids Dunith Wellalage and Matheesha Pathirana, and [how] the young batsmen like Charith Asalanka and Pathum Nissanka chip in the game. Not to forget Sadeera and Kusal Mendis as well. They eagerly waited [for] so long for these guys to perform. Now everyone wants to watch what they are doing. The fans need to enjoy apart from their jobs, and they are devoting time. That’s the best thing that has happened.”
Yet Sri Lanka hardly start a multi-team tournament as favourites. The underdogs tag is something the unit under Shanaka has grown to live with, and almost revel in. However, one standout feature has been how they’ve kept their nerve and coming out on the right side of the results in high-pressure games, like the one on Thursday against Pakistan, which was a virtual semi-final.
Despite a late collapse, Asalanka kept his cool to finish the chase off on the last ball after Sri Lanka’s innings was set up by Mendis and Samarawickrama.
That the near-capacity crowd at the Premadasa Stadium stayed on well beyond 1am to cheer for the team was indication of how the public has been pleased with this side too. The noise after the winning runs were hit prompted smartwatches to ask if their users would prefer moving to a quieter place.
Save for the grandstand, all other stands have been sold out in the lead-up to the final•Associated Press
“It’s not a new thing for Sri Lankan fans,” Shanaka said ahead of the Asia Cup final against India. “After a match finishes, I get a lot of messages: ‘Why [do] you guys always give us heart attacks?’. We were very emotional [on qualifying for the final] – and the crowd as well. It is a big thing for us to come to the final in two consecutive years.”
Save for the grandstand that is priced at LKR 40,000 (approx. US $124), the tickets for the other stands have been sold out in the lead-up to the final.
But while things look hunky-dory as far as Sri Lanka’s results are concerned – they were on a run of 13 consecutive ODI wins, before the slip up against India, even as it included bowling the opposition out in 14 successive matches – Shanaka’s form with the bat hasn’t been fine. He last crossed fifty in January, when he scored 108 not out against India. Since that innings, he has averaged a mere 10 in 16 innings, with a strike rate of only 72.46.
But Shanaka seems unfazed. “I don’t compare my batting when I go to lead the team,” he said. “My decision-making is more important than being a batsman in the middle. I am not saying batting is not important, but I need to forget whatever happened with the bat.
“I need to be calm and cool whenever the decisions need to be taken. I see myself most of the time as someone who makes good decisions even after failing with the bat, which has helped the team overcome the problems we had. I must thank the selectors for keeping trust in me. They and the coaching staff back me and give me confidence to be that leader to deliver the maximum out of me.”
Shanaka has a chance to add another Asia Cup title in Sri Lanka’s kitty to draw level with India for most titles.
S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo