x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sri Lankan team arrives to a mixed welcome after World Cup final loss

Media blames team selection and poor fielding while politicians call for restraint.

Sri Lanka's defeated cricket team returned home Sunday to calls from the state-run media demanding a probe into "blunders right from the start".

"Who picked the final XI of the Sri Lanka team for the World Cup final against India?" The Sunday Observer asked.

It questioned the dropping of spinner Ajantha Mendis in favour of Suraj Randiv who failed to impress after only joining the squad as an injury replacement on Friday.

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The Observer also questioned the wisdom of playing an injured Muttiah Muralitharan, the ace spinner, who walked away into the sunset in a disappointing end on Saturday night.

"Was it advisable playing a half-fit Muralitharan?" the state-run paper said.

"Winning the mega-final is much more important than giving a farewell tribute to even a great cricketer of Muralitharan's magnitude."

Muralitharan had been carrying knee, hamstring and groin injuries of late but Sangakkara insisted no needless risk had been taken in fielding Sri Lanka's talismanic star.  "It's one of those rare days where he hasn't really done the job for us, but that's maybe one in 100 games that happens," Sangakkara said on arrival in Colombo.

"We're going to miss him terribly. Unfortunately, we couldn't give him a great send off but that's the way it goes. We were out-played and we have to accept that."

"He's our best bowler, even half fit," said Sangakkara. "But he was fine, he was almost at full fitness. I don't think it was an issue."

Religious leaders who welcomed the team at the Bandaranaike International airport said they were disappointed with the loss, but urged dejected cricket lovers to spare the national team.

Sangakkara defended the team selection and said he had fielded the best possible players and insisted they had "played well".

"The changes we made were good," Sangakkara told reporters at the airport. "Unfortunately, we did not do well enough in bowling and fielding."

"We were unable to maintain pressure on India after their first two wickets," the skipper said. "India played very well and that is why we lost."

The captain admitted though that the big stage fright was an issue for the team.

Since capturing the 1996 World Cup, Sri Lanka have been runners-up in the 2007 and 2011 finals as well as the 2009 World Twenty20.

"We can be very proud of the way we played our cricket. Unfortunately, we couldn't convert," said Sangakkara after Saturday's six-wicket defeat to India.

"We've got to three finals, we've lost three finals. We need to lift ourselves a bit more, playing in finals is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we didn't grab that opportunity."

The Sri Lanka skipper said India's batting line-up was an "awesome" sight and that sides playing against them have to make more than 300 to stand any chance.

The islanders made 274 for six after winning the toss with Mahela Jayawardene top-scoring with a typically stylish 103 not out. "When you have such an awesome batting line up, even 300 is not enough," said Sangakkara who was also on the losing side against Australia in the 2007 final in Barbados.

"274 was great. In a final, runs on the board are very important. Then again, you also have to penetrate with your bowling attack.

"Lasith Malinga did a great job with the first two wickets but with that India batting line-up, you need to take at least three or four in the first 20 overs."

Local cricket commentator Hemantha Devapriya blamed the defeat on bad fielding.

"Sri Lanka lost because of poor fielding," Devapriya said on Sri Lanka's national television.

Another sports analyst, Palitha Perera, consoled the deflated Sri Lankans saying that the World Cup still remained in Asia.

"We must be happy that the World Cup was lifted by a fellow South Asian nation," Perera said. "We have only another four years to wait."