Sri Lanka-South Africa: What a Mess!

By Anjum Altaf

Sri Lanka took a strategic gamble against South Africa in the first quarter-final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and were blown away. What surprised me was how misplaced the gamble was and how unexpected from a team known for its ability to think.

The nature of the gamble was obvious from the first ball. It was clear that Kusal Perera was sent in to open under instructions to hit the South African attack bowlers off their lengths. The strategy might have paid off but even that would have required some sensible hitting. It was clear as daylight that Perera would not last more than a few balls, and he didn’t. More than throwing away a wicket, it put paid to the Sri Lankan strategy in a hurry and fired up the South Africans instead.

The fact that there was a slight chance the strategy may have paid off doesn’t take away from the fact that it still did not make any sense – it was simply not as good as any number of other possible gambles if the Sri Lankans were bent on gambling for some odd reason. Its biggest flaw was that it was conceived in complete disregard of the psychological burden under which the South Africans were laboring – their history as the team that had ‘choked’ repeatedly on the big occasion and one that had never progressed beyond the first round of the knockout stage of a World Cup.

Given that, a decidedly safer gamble would have been to put the South Africans in after winning the toss simply because psychic nervousness affects batting much more than bowling. More so, because one of the South African openers was in a prolonged slump and hanging on to his place only by virtue of being the first-choice wicket-keeper. There would have been a good chance of South Africa batting too cautiously or being consumed by doubt after losing an early wicket. That could have left Sri Lanka with a target it could chase and against which it could have paced its innings.

Even if it were the case that the pitch promised a huge advantage to batting first, it might have been a smarter strategy to start cautiously to see off the first spell of the much vaunted South African attack with minimal damage. Why substitute an opener who had been doing well in the tournament with one who was opening for the first time? A solid start might have aggravated doubts in the minds of the South Africans and affected the control of their bowling. Such an outcome would have allowed the Sri Lankans to go after at least one of the spinners later in the evening given that the spinners were considered the weaker part of the South African attack. Instead of that, the Sri Lankans generated so much pressure on themselves that it was actually the lowly-rated spinners who overwhelmed them.

How did it happen that in constructing their strategy the Sri Lankans ignored the big picture so completely and treated the South Africans no differently than say the Australians or the New Zealanders? How come the Sri Lankans opted for a gamble for which there was no plan B? Why did the Sri Lankans feel compelled to gamble at all? These are the questions that someone badly needs to answer. Winning and losing are part of the game but being decimated out of sheer stupidity was not expected from Sri Lanka.

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