Sri Lanka team
Sri Lankan players training ahead of the opener against Afghanistan at the ICC Academy grounds. Image Credit: AFP

With the 15th edition of the Asia Cup about to begin on Saturday at the Dubai Cricket Stadium between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan we had the legend Angelo Mathews, who just played his 100th Test match to share his point of view on Sri Lankan team and their chances in the Asia Cup.

Sri Lanka, who last won the Asia Cup in 2014 under Mathews’ captaincy, feels this current Sri Lankan young cricketers to play smart cricket to go the distance in the Asia Cup. He added Sri Lanka has the fire power and needs them to play the same brand of positive cricket consistently to be successful.

Mathews wants in-form Kusal Mendis to open the innings as he has the talent and the right temperament. Sri Lanka have too many options in Danushka Gunathilaka, Pathum Nissanka and Charith Asalanka to open the innings and wants to see who will be the opener to set the platform for Sri Lanka.

The all-rounder believes Bhanuka Rajapaksha has the natural flair and power to get quick runs to give the team the right impetus in the end to put his team in winning position. He said that in the 2014 T20 World Cup, which Sri Lanka won in Bangladesh beating favourites India, the islanders were playing smart cricket, despite not having too many power-hitters. Similarly, he wants the current team to play to their strengths and avoid being reckless. “You need to pick the right bowler, pick the gaps, run hard and you can still win,” he said.

Mathews said that in Wanindu Hasaranaga, Sri Lanka has a superstar who can win matches single-handedly.

“I had seen him very early, when he made his debut, and had taken a hat-trick. He has shown glimpses of his sheer talent and also what he can do on the cricket field,” the former skipper added. “He is a very confident player and lands the ball in the right places, has the variation and knows what the batsman is up to. He is a fantastic cricketer and a vital cog in this Sri Lankan team.”

Angelo Mathews

He went on to add that Hasranga has the batting talent to become a handy all-rounder if he doesn’t go hard from ball one. He needed to take the game deep as he has the shots to get those useful runs when needed. Mathews wants Hasaranga to take his time and feels he will learn with time to execute the right shots.

Theekshana needs to add variations

When asked about Maheesh Theekshana, Mathews sees him in the same mould as Ajantha Mendis and if the mystery spinner can add more variations to his howling, then he can be as lethal as Mendis, who had wrecked India in the 2008 Asia Cup final with figures of 6/13. He wants Theekshana to be one step ahead of the batters, who will eventually read him well over time. Then it will be challenge for him going ahead, so he will have to evolve with the game that’s moving so fast in today’s era.

When asked about the Dasun Shanaka, Mathews said the captain has played some exceptional innings. But for him to be consistent, Shanka needs to keep his captaincy aside and think as a batsman and not allow the burden of captaincy affect him. “Dasun has to play a major part in Sri Lanka for the team to go ahead in this Asia Cup as he has a good team,” he said.

No wonder Angelo Mathews is a street-smart cricketer and his insights were spot on about how Sri Lanka should play in the Asia Cup to go the distance. He said Afghanistan is a dangerous side and they can never be taken lightly and can beat any team on their day with the likes of Rashid Khan and Mohammed Nabi having experience and the youngsters like Gurbaz and Mujeeb giving the right balance to the team.

When I asked him about the big game India and Pakistan, who would win, Mathews said it should be a cracker of a game and he can’t pick a winner and it should be a mouth-watering contest.

Afghanistan's chances

Meanwhile, Umar Gul, who had played a key role in Pakistan winning the T20 World Cup in 2009, is now the bowling coach of Team Afghanistan and is excited about Afghanistan’s chances in the Asia Cup, starting on Saturday.

When asked about Rashid Khan, Umar Gul said that the mystery spinner is a role model for most of the spinners coming from Afghanistan and everyone in the country wants to emulate him.

Umar Gul

“My main motive as the bowling coach of Afghanistan is to make them a force also in the pace attack and create a role model for fast bowlers, just the way Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rehman are currently,” Gul said.

Talking about the present captain Mohammed Nabi, Gul said he is a gentleman and very friendly and he wants to take his team along with him. He has all qualities of a leader and that’s why he is so respected in Afghanistan.”

Prepared well

Gul is confident about his team taking on Sri Lanka on Saturday in the opening game of the Asia Cup and says the players have worked very hard and prepared very well going into the tournament.

T20 format, even though very unpredictable, suits Afghanistan’s style of cricket, Gul believes.

When I asked Gul that as a fast bowler he was very calm and never sledged, he replied in his gentle calm voice that to be a fast bowler aggression is important, but it can be shown in bowling the short ball and playing with the mind of the batsman and getting him play a false short. “You don’t become a fast bowler by just sledging, but by using your mind,” he concluded.