Colombo: Sri Lanka is expecting its ageing stars to sparkle as it sets out to revive World Cup glory despite an unimpressive overseas record.
Skipper Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Hashan Tillakaratne, Marvan Atapattu and Muthiah Muralitharan are all over 30, but still retain the enthusiasm and sharpness of youngsters. But the odds are heavily stacked against Sri Lanka who, like India, is formidable at home but extremely vulnerable abroad against fast bowling on pacy and bouncy pitches. Yet the veteran quintet carry on its shoulders Sri Lanka's hopes of a miracle in South Africa, where the team has won just two of its 11 One-dayers on its last two tours.
Batting is Sri Lanka's main strength, with Aravinda the third-highest run-getter in the world with 9,017 in 298 matches and Jayasuriya the sixth with 8,645 in 287. Opener Atapattu provides the stability at the top with his determined batting in a fascinating contrast to his skipper's flair and flamboyance. He has behind him the experience of 5,964 runs in 180 matches. Much will depend on Sri Lanka's batting in the opening 15 overs when the field restrictions require just two men outside the circle, for Jayasuriya has the shots to grind any attack and Atapattu the temperament to graft. Openers Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana played a key role in Sri Lanka winning the Cup for the only time in 1996 in the Indian sub-continent, but on pitches which were low and slow.
The ploy failed to work on seaming tracks in the next World Cup in England where it failed to qualify even for the Super Six. Sri Lanka face hard and bouncy pitches in South Africa, but Jayasuriya's form and Atapattu's consistency augur well for the team looking forward to improving its overseas record. Jayasuriya hammered successive centuries, one each against hosts Australia and England in a recent triangular series, while Atapattu was the most dependable batsman on the team's tour of South Africa. Dav Whatmore, who coached Sri Lanka to the 1996 World Cup triumph, is back after the team's dismal show in 1999 and has been entrusted with the job of rebuilding the side.
Mahela Jayawardene and wicket-keeper-batsman Kumar Sangakkara are the talented youngsters in the squad capable of forcing the pace, but the bowling remains a major worry. Off spin wizard Muralitharan is continuing to tease and torment batsmen with his clever variations, but has often lacked support from the other end. Chaminda Vaas is the most experienced and skilful of fast bowlers with 255 wickets in 210 matches, but other seamers have yet to prove themselves in overseas conditions.
Sri Lanka will expect part-time spinners Russel Arnold, Jayasuriya and Aravinda to chip in even on wickets which are unlikely to suit them. Jayasuriya says the opening match against New Zealand at Bloemfontein on February 10 will be crucial, for a victory will give a big boost to his team's confidence. But to win, Sri Lanka will have to bank largely on its veterans.