Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sri Lanka beat New Zealand. Again. By a lot.

Forget all the pre-cup hype, the years of preparation, the strategies and roadmaps. In the end, the four most talented teams are in the finals of the World Cup. And the most talented of the South Asian teams booked their place in the finals today with a comprehensive demolishment of New Zealand.

Early problems for Lanka
It wasn’t a cakewalk for Sri Lanka to be sure. For about 35 overs, New Zealand made them sweat. Choosing to bat first on a bouncy pitch, the Lions lost their primary batting match-winner Sanath Jayasurya early – beaten by the length and pace of Franklin. But at this juncture Stephen Fleming was let down rather badly by his star bowler – Shane Bond. Trying to find early swing, Bond struggled to come up with an optimal line. He was nudged and flicked to the fence or nullified with a straight bat.


A steady stream of wickets
Yet, Sri Lanka lost a steady stream of wickets throughout their innings– most of them to soft dismissals or poor umpiring decisions. Upul Tharanga – his place in the squad under pressure - prospered for a while, his drives and cuts escaping Fleming’s traps because of the extra carry in the pitch. But just as he was establishing a foundation with his captain Mahela Jayawardene, he overbalanced and lost his stumps to Vettori – who was extracting some slow turn from the wicket.

The next two Lankan batsmen Silva and Dilshan then put in useful contributions. When Tharanga fell, a total of 250 looked like a good one for Sri Lanka. But more than the runs they put on board, these two energizer bunnies ignited their team’s search for a large total.

Jayawardene constructs a great innings
With his middle order batsmen egging him on, Jayawardene responded with one of the greatest World Cup hundreds – the second we’ve seen this tournament from his team.

With wickets falling around him, he calmly kept the pedal to the metal on the singles and twos. He played the ball late, especially off the pads. He timed his shots beautifully, indicating his rising form in this tournament. And he picked the gaps near perfectly. His first fifty came in 76 balls. His second came in 52 balls. When Jayawardene plays the big shots, he hardly appears to be slogging. Yet he added 69 to the total in the last 10 overs all by himself!

New Zealand walk into a storm
Chasing 290 to win, New Zealand immediately ran into trouble. Chaminda Vaas was his steady self – keeping it tight, occasionally threatening with some swing in to the right hander. At the other end, Lasith Malinga unleashed a blinder of a spell. His bowling had speed, carry and swing out to the right hander. He was virtually unplayable.

With the ball not quite coming on the bat, New Zealand had the skids put on them. Both bowlers picked up a wicket each – reducing the opposition to 32 for 2. At this stage New Zealand had no option but to crawl along and hope for a turn in fortune.

A ray of hope
And just like that out of nowhere came a ray of hope. First, New Zealand found two confident batsmen at the crease – Peter Fulton, who had survived those blistering opening spells and Scott Styris, in Ponting-like form. In addition, Dilhara Fernanado – preferred rather inexplicably over Maharoof for this game – was pulled up twice for running on the pitch and disintegrated under the pressure. Both batsmen sensed a window and went on the offensive. Going after Fernando, they added 73 in 68 balls.

With concern rising Jayawardene turned to his slow bowlers and almost instantly Styris obliged him with a chip to midwicket.

A quick downward spiral
Two brilliant catches followed. Muralidharan foxed Oram with a doosra and then dove to his right to pick up the return catch inches from the ground. And then McCallam came in and swiped at the first ball which ballooned into Silva’s outstretched hands at short fine leg. At 114 for 5, the game had slipped out of New Zealand’s grasp.

In retrospect perhaps New Zealand peaked a little too early. Maybe their hammering at the hands of Australia going into this game might have doused their fluttering spirits. It’s hard to put a finger on it. But they’ve played good cricket and no cricket fan would have grudged their place in the last four.

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