It can’t get any worse in 2021 for sports fans

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By The Line Judge

The knives are already out with fickle-minded Sri Lankan cricket fans baying for the blood of head coach Mickey Arthur and captain Dimuth Karunaratne, after the team suffered an innings defeat in South Africa, playing their first Test in more than ten months. The Sri Lanka team seem to be carrying many walking wounded in their side and indeed it wasn’t a pleasant sight to see many players being wheeled off the ground with some injury or other picked up during the match at Centurion. Fans were lulled into a sense of complacency that Sri Lanka was well prepared for the rigors of Test cricket after seeing some of the national stars providing high-octane entertainment during the inaugural Lanka Premier League (LPL) just before the South African tour.

Many pundits being wiser after the event are now questioning the wisdom of Sri Lanka undertaking this tour because it came on the back of the LPL, giving hardly any recovery time for the South Africa-bound players. Both Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) and the Cricket South Africa (CSA) were more concerned about the tour taking place after England’s cancellation because of Covid concerns. Even the players seemed eager to resume international cricket after the Bangladesh series was called off with the tourists refusing to adhere to the strict COVID-19 quarantine protocols in September, while the LPL was also delayed several times before it finally took place in a bio-secure bubble in Hambantota.

Arthur admitted playing T20 before a Test series was not the ideal preparation. “I would have liked more time to prepare. We have had camps and intra-squad games and have tried to keep the players as sharp as they can be,” he said, adding that the Sri Lankans had done their best to replicate likely South African pitches by preparing on bouncy, well-grassed surfaces in Kandy.

A planned three-day warm-up match before the Test was cancelled because of Covid restrictions.

Ironically, it was one of the stars of LPL, Dhananjaya de Silva, who set alarm bells ringing in South Africa when he limped off the field with a torn thigh muscle, making an impressive 79 on the first day after Sri Lanka won the toss and chose to bat to make 396. But fast bowlers Kasun Rajitha and Lahiru Kumara both suffered groin injuries as the injury-depleted Sri Lankan attack conceded 621 runs when South Africa batted, with man-of-the-match Faf du Plessis hitting 199.Sri Lanka were bowled out for 180 in the second innings despite half-centuries from KusalPerera (64) and debutant Wanindu Hasaranga (59), whose fine all-round performance was the only silver lining in the defeat.

In fact, 23-year-old Hasaranga representing Galle Gladiators was one of the revelations in the LPL. He underscored the wealth of local talent available in the country. “What really impressed me most about this tournament was the presence of some excellent local talent. Sri Lanka has over the years produced some excellent players but, in this tournament, I got to appreciate first-hand a whole new group of leg-spinners, off-spinners who have no fear of flighting the ball, fast-bowlers and most importantly some technically well-equipped players. All of this augurs well for Sri Lankan cricket,” said former Pakistan opener Aamir Sohail, who was part of the TV commentary team at the LPL.

Interestingly, while Sri Lanka was getting hammered by South Africa, India bounced back from the low of being bowled out for meagre 36 in Adelaide to thump Australia by eight wickets to level the four-match series 1-1. Led by Ajinkya Rahane in the absence of regular skipper Virat Kohli, who was on paternity leave, India showed great character to turn the tables on the Aussies at Melbourne. Whether Sri Lanka could make a comeback of sorts in the second Test against South Africa which starts at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Sunday (Jan 3) remains to be seen.

Apart from this setback, the injuries to key players must be worrisome for coach Arthur, since Sri Lanka have to face England when they return home. Arthur’s South African counterpart, Mark Boucher, empathized with him saying the biggest challenge facing cricket teams in the times of COVID-19 was managing fast bowlers.

“It’s very difficult in these times to prepare,” he said. “We are having to think out of the box continuously to try and get our workloads up in order to bowl 20 overs a day. It’s easier for batters to work on their fitness. You can do shuttles. But, it’s difficult to bowl 20 overs in your back garden. You can’t put guys in cotton wool and just have them bowl six overs and think they are ready for a Test match.”

Nonetheless, Sri Lanka would welcome the resumption of the Test series against England which was jettisoned because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could trigger the revival of sporting competition both national and international during the New Year.

Despite the failure of the Sri Lanka cricketers to live up to the high expectations of fans, the year ended on a positive note with athletics and badminton being the only two sports to conduct national level competitions. Sri Lanka Badminton conducted the inaugural Li Ning Lanka Shuttle Challenge for its national poolists soon after the LPL, while Sri Lanka Athletics successfully conducted its 98th National Athletic Championship albeit within closed doors and limiting participation to top ranked athletes in each event.

Sri Lanka Rugby is scheduled to host three tournaments in the Asia Rugby calendar but players and fans are eagerly awaiting the return of rugby in February with an inter-club 7s competition, while the Football Federation of Sri Lanka is all set to launch the Super League on January 29, the first ever professional league in the history of football in the country.

As the world looks forward to the Tokyo Olympics, 2021 can’t get any worse surely with athletes eager to get off the blocks with or without the adrenaline rush of cheering spectators.

-ENCL

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