Who is the favourite to win the 2015 ICC World Cup? Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa? Not Sri Lanka right? But are you sure you can count out the 1996 champions? In the run-up to the tournament, the Lankans were not on anyone's favourites' list, they weren't even being talked about as dark horses, but you would have to be very brave to discard Sri Lanka altogether. Their nine-wicket win vs England had two very interesting facets. One, their bowling needs improvement. After all, they gave away 309 runs to a batting side which is not amongst the best in the world. Two, their batting is clicking. Two of their top three scored unbeaten centuries to take the team home with over two overs to spare. (Sri Lanka Beat England)
NDTV World Cup expert and former India cricketer VVS Laxman in fact told NDTV, "They are peaking at the right time and like Pakistan in 1992, Sri Lanka have always had this tendency of being slow starters in a World Cup and once they get their feet off the ground I think it's very difficult to stop them because they are quality players and match winners." Can the Lankans then be the joker in the pack? (Sangakkara is No.1, Says Thirimanne)
Laxman in fact has picked Sri Lanka as the team that will finish second behind New Zealand in Pool A, ahead of pre-tournament favourites Australia. It's a prediction that might surprise many, but after Australia's performance vs New Zealand in Auckland, it's not really outside the realm of possibility. Remember Sri Lanka play Australia on Sunday in Sydney and though their premier spinner Rangana Herath is doubtful for that key clash due to a finger injury, Laxman feels, "It will be a tough game for Australia, it will be a close game."
Sri Lanka have won three out of their four matches so far. After the loss to New Zealand, they were pushed by Afghanistan, who they beat by four wickets. That was followed by two convincing wins over Bangladesh and England. But is that enough to prove that the Lankans can perhaps spoil a party or two? Brian Lara doesn't think so. He told NDTV, "Sri Lanka is a very good team, but I am worried about their two wins, against Bangladesh and England. They were convincing yes, but they weren't against great oppositions, they weren't stretched."
The Lankans won't mind being under the radar. With no real pressure of expectation, Angelo Mathews and his team can go about their business without having to worry about any kind of labels. There might not be any pressure, but the team has enough motivation to try and clinch world cricket's biggest prize. Two of the legends of Sri Lankan cricket, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara will not wear the coloured jersey after the World Cup after playing a total of 846 ODIs between them. If the Indian team of 2011 was determined to win the Cup for Sachin Tendulkar, the Lankans will have the same burning desire for their two stalwarts.
The Lankan team management has its task cut out. As Laxman pointed out, bowling is their main concern. If Malinga and company can get their act together, they can perhaps give any team a run for their money. The Lankans remember were not amongst the favourites in the 2014 ICC World T20, but they beat favourites India comfortably in the final to clinch the biggest prize in T20 cricket. The joker has trumped the King once, can it happen again?