If Sri Lanka’s chances of progressing to the semi-finals of the World Cup are slightly better than the one in a million offered to Lloyd Christmas by Mary Swanson in Dumb and Dumber, it’s not by much. But just as Lloyd replied with a goggle-eyed “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”, so too must Dimuth Karunaratne’s men push on against an Australian side that, while not firing on anything like all their available cylinders, are comfortably ensconced in the race for the tournament’s knockouts.
To progress, Sri Lanka will need to do it the hard way with games against England, South Africa, India and West Indies still to come after Saturday’s outing. For Australia, the equation is more likely to require three wins from their remaining five fixtures.
At the same time Australia will be chasing improvement in terms of performance and also balance, having looked so far like a collection of jigsaw puzzle pieces with either one too few to complete the picture, or an abundance of pieces that won’t fit the remaining gaps. Chief among these are Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh in the middle order, while the bowling attack, too, has a significant lack of depth once Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins are dealt with.
Sri Lanka, though, have more fundamental issues, needing somehow to find the collective confidence to get into a position to win. Their two completed matches feel an age ago when they were bowled out for 136 by New Zealand and 201 by Afghanistan. However, they have gained two points from washouts, and a victory over Australia would help provide the type of critical momentum required for the sort of unlikely progression that Lloyd Christmas had so desired.
(Last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka WLWLL
In the spotlight
Against Pakistan, Glenn Maxwell showed off his skills – namely a rare combination of brutality and precision against spin – but also his drawbacks, beaten easily by pace when Sarfaraz Ahmed deigned to challenge him with it. Between the coach Justin Langer and his assistant Ricky Ponting, there appears a determination to ensure Maxwell is given the best opportunity to be a match-winner for Australia, more so after they attracted plenty of derision for holding him back too late in their chase against India. In 2015, Maxwell clattered the Sri Lankans for a brilliant and tournament-shaping century, just at the moment when the Australians were trying to shore up their place in the quarter-finals. The Oval and a less confident Sri Lankan side offer the chance to Maxwell to get his tournament going.
Australia’s players have never forgotten Kusal Mendis after his match and arguably series-winning innings against them in a Test match in Kandy in 2016. It was Mendis’ breakout performance, but he did not fare as well against Australia in subsequent innings, not topping 42 in four Test innings down under earlier this year. Nevertheless a couple of ODI half-centuries against them in 2016 and also a wasted start in their warm-up match in Southampton ahead of the World Cup have demonstrated that Mendis has the skill and nerve to build Sri Lanka’s innings from the middle.
Nuwan Pradeep, who suffered a blow to his bowling hand while training and missed the game against Bangladesh, has returned to training. Whether he is match fit or not will be assessed later. The good news for Sri Lanka is that Lasith Malinga is on his way back to England after attending his mother-in-law’s funeral, and will join the team in time for the game. If Malinga is ready for action, Sri Lanka might not want to risk playing Pradeep.
Sri Lanka (possible) 1 Kusal Perera, 2 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), 3 Lahiru Thirimanne 4, Angelo Mathews, 5 Kusal Mendis, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva, 7 Thisara Perara, 8 Isuru Udana, 9 Jeevan Mendis, 10 Suranga Lakmal, 11 Lasith Malinga
Australia are likely to take the field with four specialist bowlers, with Marcus Stoinis still injured but not yet replaced in the squad by Mitchell Marsh. Aaron Finch suggested that they will stick to the four-pacer plan, and Finch and Smith, who had a decent bowl in the nets on the eve of the game, are expected to help Maxwell out as the fifth bowler, providing ten overs of spin.
Australia (possible) 1 Aaron Finch (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Glenn Maxwell, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Nathan Coulter-Nile, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Mitchell Starc, 11 Kane Richardson
Pitch and conditions
The Oval surface has thus far been on the slow, holding side, although this will be a fresh pitch. London’s weather forecast is for periods of clouds amid sunshine, but mercifully not much rain.
- Australia have been well served by promoting Pat Cummins to taking the new ball, shared with Mitchell Starc, but his move to the first ten overs of the innings have also left them somewhat vulnerable in the middle overs. Given the new-ball movement on offer to the likes of Coulter-Nile or potentially Jason Behrendorff, there is the option of moving Cummins back to first change to free up more of his valuable ten overs for the middle of an innings. A case of risk versus reward.
- Sri Lanka lack India’s batting depth, but the lesson learned by all teams following the victory by Virat Kohli’s side over Australia is that if Cummins and Starc are able to be tamed, then there are plenty of runs to be taken in targeted assaults elsewhere. Of course, the cautionary tale is in how skilfully this is done, as evidenced by Finch’s slow left-arm occasionals snaring a wicket via an ugly full toss against Pakistan in Taunton.
- Sri Lanka may seriously want to consider playing Jeevan Mendis and Jeffrey Vandersay. Since 2018, Australia have lost more wickets to legspin (38) than any other side. While the openers, David Warner and Finch, average over 40 against legspin, Khawaja (21.3) and Smith (27.1) are much lower.
Stats and trivia
- Last time Australia met Sri Lanka at The Oval they were eliminated from the 2013 Champions Trophy, in what was Mickey Arthur’s last game as coach before he was sacked ahead of the Ashes and replaced by Darren Lehmann.
- Lasith Malinga needs four wickets to become the fourth man to take 50 World Cup wickets. Three will tie him with Chaminda Vaas on 49 World Cup wickets – the second-highest for Sri Lanka behind Muttiah Muralitharan’s 68.
“I think he’s always been a competitive beast. He loves the challenge, he loves the contest. I’ve never seen anything different since he was in the Under-19s, [as] an 18-year-old he used to love it. That’s what the greats do, that’s what the champions do. They love the contest. He loves the contest.”
Australia coach Justin Langer on Pat Cummins.
“We are a team with limited talent. If you compare us with a lot of other sides, we have major limitations. For example, the India side has someone who hits a hundred virtually in every match. In our team, we’ve only had one or two centurions all year.”
Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne is under no illusions as to the strength of his team.