Shanaka's Sri Lanka on the right track despite Asia Cup crash

Maharoof: Sri Lanka exceeded the expectations of many by reaching the final (2:02)

Uthappa reckons that given Sri Lanka had many first-choice players missing, getting this far augurs well (2:02)

At any other point in Sri Lanka's history, crumbling to 50 all out in an Asia Cup final would've left the captain standing on extremely shaky ground. Especially if he's managed only two double-digit scores in his last 11 innings.

Dasun Shanaka's form with the bat is difficult to ignore. But there is more than meets the eye in this story.

"Dasun works so hard on his game," Sri Lanka head coach Chris Silverwood said on Sunday. "And as we know he's a great man. So from my point of view we're just trying to put confidence into him. We know what he's capable of. He can be a very destructive batter, and we've seen in this tournament that he's more than a useful bowler. So for me he's one score away from flying again," he said speaking after Sunday's Asia Cup final.

"There's more to being the captain than just scoring runs. Dasun is very good at it. He has the respect of everyone in the dressing room. He understands the players and shows them a lot of love and support as well. And that love and support is returned to him as well. But he's not alone in there. He's got a lot of support in that dressing room."

Shanaka took over the reins in early 2021. It was a change in leadership that coincided with a youth-driven overhaul of Sri Lanka's white-ball sides - set in motion by the Pramodya Wickramasinghe-led selection committee and emboldened by the now-defunct technical advisory committee headed by Aravinda de Silva - one that culminated in that most unlikely of Asia Cup wins in 2022.

That win might have set unrealistic expectations for the T20 World Cup later that year, but after another Asia Cup final, this time in ODIs, it's hard to argue that this isn't a side moving in the right direction. It just so happens that the setbacks thus far have been particularly brutal.

But does that warrant tearing up the blueprint completely? Especially when that blueprint had accounted for such setbacks? Speaking to ESPNcricinfo prior to last year's T20 World Cup, consultant coach Mahela Jayawardene had acknowledged as much.

"The players know what their roles are in this team. What is being asked of them to do, that is important. But it's very difficult for new guys to come in and straight away do that," he said.

"We have to give some time to cultivate that within the group, and you will see that they trust each other out there. They don't blame each other for mistakes, they take their mistakes as a group not as individuals, and they move on."

For much of cricket's history, the idea of player roles was anomalous - you simply played your best squad, be it in Test or ODI cricket. However, the advent of T20 has gradually ushered in the era of specialists, not just in formats but in positions. Jayawardene has long been a passionate advocate of role clarity, something he had identified as a key point to address even prior to joining Sri Lanka's coaching set-up in an official capacity.

"We had to be more prepared, the players needed more direction in terms of role clarity. There was a lot of things we needed to do, in terms of getting them to play a certain brand of cricket and giving them the freedom to express themselves."

The perception is that the pursuit of this new set of goals has set Sri Lanka up for pain in the short term, but the numbers don't actually support that. Sri Lanka's win-loss ratio has hardly budged over the past few years and even compares well with the halcyon days of 2007-2014.

In terms of win percentage, Sri Lanka's under Shanaka's captaincy stands at 58% with 23 wins in 39 ODIs. How does that compare with previous regimes? Well, the longest in recent memory is Jayawardene's, with his 129 games seeing 71 wins (55% win rate). In terms of best win rate, Kumar Sangakkara got up to 60% in 45 games. Angelo Mathews won 49 of his 106 ODIs as captain (46%). So Shanaka is generally par for the course, and even if you take Sri Lanka's golden period in 2007-2014, their ODI win rate stood at 52%.

Given that, a large part of the current malaise surrounding the team could be down to big-game performance. Despite that 52%, Sri Lanka would make a deep run in nearly every major tournament between 2007 and 2014, culminating in that 2014 World T20 win (their T20I win percentage in this period was 62.5%). Shanaka meanwhile has won 45% of T20Is under his captaincy, but since that includes an Asia Cup win, his record in the shortest format is viewed fairly favourably.

Why, then, does this Sri Lanka side feel so much worse than those of yesteryear? Simply put, the opposition has gotten better.

A fun aside surrounding Sri Lanka's debacle against India: the entire ODI lasted 129 deliveries, putting it third in the list of the shortest completed men's ODIs. The second, fourth and fifth spots in that list also include Sri Lanka - it's just that on these occasions, they were the ones handing out the hammerings.

Of those three thrashings, Zimbabwe were at the receiving end of two. Entire Bangladesh top orders have been ransacked by Chaminda Vaas alone. Even India have felt the burn that a red-hot Sri Lanka can inflict and social media was full of posts reminiscing about the good old days.

This is at the heart of Sri Lankan cricket's identity crisis at the moment. A string of wins in the qualifying tournament to a World Cup has been written off as minnow-bashing and losses to supreme white-ball outfits like India and England were viewed as conclusive evidence of Sri Lankan cricket's downfall.

The reality, though, isn't quite so bleak. It is just that it seems so by comparison. There was a time when Sri Lanka could go toe-to-toe with even the best sides in major tournaments. It stings that they can't do the same right now; that they've been left behind.

Addressing this is where Sri Lanka are investing their energy. They're trying not to make hasty decisions, and in that sense, the willingness to persevere with Shanaka might just be a signal of a greater shift in the mindset of those tasked with taking Sri Lanka cricket back to where they feel they ought to be.

Perhaps then it's time we stop pining for what Sri Lanka were and relearn to love them for what they're trying to be.