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World Cup 2011 Semi-final – Sri Lanka vs New Zealand: Sri Lanka Pip Kiwis, Enter Finals

By on March 29, 2011

Sri Lanka 220 for 5 (Dilshan 73, Sangakkara 54) beat New Zealand 217 (Styris 57, Mendis 3-35) by five wickets…

It all looks perfect when someone sketches it on the blackboard, below the big bold ‘Game Theory’ title:

You two blokes try and hit a few in the first ten; then everyone take a deep breath, settle down, no risks, doesn’t matter if the runs don’t come, we keep wickets in hand, then we take the power play and in the last ten, our batting depth kicks in and we smash the ball out of the park, add 100-and-plenty…

Guptill and Brendan McCullum seemed to have got the first bit right. A couple of balls from Malinga in the first over, pitched a bit short, failed to come up more than waist high. Righto, said Guptill; taking a nice stride into the ball, he cracked the Lankan quick for a four off the fifth ball, and then with Brendan McCullum, moved the score along to 29/0 at the end of six.

A minor victory was won along the way. Realizing that the wicket (the same one used in the quarters against England, dehydrated and devoid of live) had nothing in it for his premier bowler, Kumar Sangakkara had taken Malinga off after just the one over.

And then McCullum, whose World Cup has been particularly undistinguished, attempted a repeat of the slog sweep he had pulled off against Herath an over earlier; this time, the ball was fuller and quicker, it went through the shot and onto the stumps.

In came Ross Taylor, wielding his bat in gentle pacifist arcs, while at the other end Guptill lost his initial rapture. Anchors were dropped at either end – this would be the ‘consolidation phase’ spelt out on the blackboard – and the Sri Lankan bowlers, never shy to refuse such invitations, went about running out the clock on the Kiwi innings.

The Kiwis progressed, if you can call it that, from 20/0 after 5 to 38/1 in ten; 60/1 in 15 and, in bizarre fashion, added another 14 to go to 74/2 in 20 (Another way to look at it is, 43 dot balls in the first 10 overs; 58 at the end of 15; 77 not scored off after 20). The Lankan bowling, with Kumar rotating his spinners around, was good – but the Premadasa is a large ground, the field mostly stayed back, there was space especially in the V but neither batsman seemed inclined to work the ball around and make the spinners think.

Sub-continental batsmen have this down to a fine art. They play spinners with soft hands, guiding the ball around the park, picking up easy singles, forcing the bowlers to change their lines and then cashing in on mistakes. Unable to do that, Jesse Ryder swung harder and harder. A thumping drive at Muralitharan in the 19th over was stopped at short extra cover; next ball, Ryder swung even harder to a ball that was tossed up a fraction more; it bit, bounced, found the thin edge.

Kumar brought Malinga back in the 21st over looking for some reverse, and the bowler obliged with the kind of over that is scary even through the filter of the television screen – fast, swinging viciously through the air, and homing in always to the base of the stumps, one such being too good for Guptill.

At the 25 over mark, the Kiwis were 93/3. In other words, neither had they put runs on the board, nor conserved wickets. Significantly, with 25 more overs to bowl, Kumar had at his disposal seven from Malinga, and 5 each of Herath, Mendis and Murali – in other words, 22 overs.

Just when the game was beginning to look one-sided, Scott Styris turned the clock back. The 35-year-old had gone through six previous innings to scrape together a grand total of 85 runs, never looking convincing. Here, he played as if he were coming off sequential hundreds: cover driving and then straight driving Malinga in the 26th with such ease, Kumar pulled his quick off the firing line.

The Ryder-Ross Taylor partnership was, finally, the Kiwis getting a foot in the door, and slowly nudging it open. They took singles, they found the boundaries just often enough to force the Lankans back on their heels, and they stitched together a 7-run partnership at a healthy 4.7 (Styris, the more energetic of the two, contributed 47 to Taylor’s 25) that took the Kiwis to 161/3 at the end of 39.

Taylor’s wicket off the first ball of the 40th over seemed one of those blessings in thin disguise – though he had resisted the Lankan bowlers, his 36 in 54 deliveries was weighing down one end of the innings – his dismissal meant that the heavy hitters could come in and – remember the blackboard – start the planned acceleration.

The batting power play was taken in the 42nd over; the plan seemed to be working just a treat when Kane Williamson, who had hinted at class with a lovely pick-up clip off Malinga over midwicket, showed his mates how it is done, even against a bowler of Murali’s class. In the 43rd, he first waltzed out delightfully and played a controlled chip over the head of midwicket. Reading the ace spinner with ease, he waited back in his crease for the next ball, predictably bowled quicker and dragged down, and slapped it square for back to back boundaries.

21 runs came off the first two PP overs and the force seemed to be with the Kiwis even when Williamson, in an excess of exuberance, walked across the stumps and got nailed in front by a Malinga yorker he tried to flick on the on. A wristy flick for six by Nathan McCullum off Murali in the next over saw the offie, bowling his final spell on home soil, go for 12. 45 overs gone, Kiwis 204/5 and seemingly headed for a 245-255 score that could have proved challenging.

And then it all went west. A swipe at Malinga saw McCullum edge behind, and signal the start of a procession – from 204-5 to 217 all out. It was batting of the most atrocious – the plan may have been for the heavy hitters to throw the bat around, but the canny Lankan bowlers knew when to hold the ball back, when to throw it wide, when to arrow it into the stumps. Bowling tight against batsmen looking to attack them is the USP of the Lankan bowlers, and those skills were in full view here as the Kiwis crashed and burned.

The report thus far might give the impression that it was all about what the Kiwis did, or did not do: they batted slow, then batted fast, then collapsed. Not so – the Lankans turned in a signature performance with the ball and in the field. That they were not challenged is hardly their fault – without exception they stuck to their disciplines, and if one of them began to get tap, there was always another bowler, of another type, to come along and read the riot act. The Lankans are easily the best fielding side in the sub-continent; if they didn’t as a unit hit their usual high standards, they didn’t fluff any the way they had in the last game, and Dilshan had an outstanding day out, fielding either square on the off, or straight within the circle and produce some magnificent saves.

Low though the wicket was playing, 218 was never going to test the strong Sri Lankan batting on home turf. The Kiwis’ best hope of making a fight of it was to bowl with discipline at the start, keep the Lankan openers from breaking free, and put the game in holding pattern till the ball got older and softer, the spinners came into their own, and pressure began to build.

Instead, they came out and bowled rubbish – the seamers in particular operating as if they had a sign on their backs reading ‘Keep the pitch clean – deposit trash outside the boundary.’

Tim Southee was the main culprit, bowling both sides of the wicket and hitting the short length too often. On a pitch where such deliveries sat up and begged, Dilshan pulled with intent and power. Southee dropped shorter, Dilshan hit harder. (When Oram in the 24th over dropped short and Dilshan contemptuously pulled him over square leg to get to 45 off 66, four of his five boundaries and his lone six had all come on the on side, off short balls).

Lanka was 59/1 after 12. Southee had bowled 4 of those, and contributed 27; it didn’t help that Nathan McCullum, given the new ball (why, against spin-happy Lankans?), was equally ineffective (4-0-18-0). Such bowling, in defense of a small total, took the pressure right off the Lankans.

The only wicket to fall was Tharanga, who got a rank bad ball from Southee – short, wide of off – and smashed it towards the point boundary, only for Jesse Ryder to defy both his weight and the laws of gravity, fling himself to his left at point and pull off the sort of catch you watch endlessly on replay, and still don’t believe can be attempted.

Dilshan and Sangakkara then set about shepherding the chase. Though the Kiwis sporadically slowed things down with the odd good over (courtesy Vettori and McKay in particular), their normally razor sharp fielding cracked under the pressure, mistakes proliferated, the support bowlers were cannon fodder to a pair of batsmen reveling in the form of their lives. And as the target got huge chunks chipped off it, the short ball epidemic began affecting even the likes of Vettori himself.

The course of the chase was best mapped through Kiwi bowling coach Allan Donald’s expressions. Early on, he was on the boundary, talking to the bowler who had just finished an over, gesticulating, exhorting. By the halfway mark, he was reduced to shaking his head in undisguised disgust.

Just when it seemed as if the imperious Dilshan, and the silken Sangakkara, would race to the target with humiliating ease, the game turned. The catalysts always existed – the slow pitch made trickier as the ball gets softer and makes the batsman wait on his shots, to name just one.

From a cruise at 160/1, Dilshan gave Southee his second wicket, and Ryder his second catch, in a dismissal that mirrored that of his opening partner – slapping a short ball outside off straight to point, overhitting the ball in his eagerness. In came Mahela and out he went, playing down the wrong line and being nailed plumb by Vettori. Sangakkara, till then epitomizing calm assurance, played a wild upper cut at a short ball outside off from McKay and found third man – and suddenly, Lanka had slid to 164/4; the Kiwis began buzzing around in the field in a manner reminiscent of the closing stages of their game against South Africa, and Lanka’s untested middle order faced music not to their liking.

Barring the implosion against Pakistan, the Dilshan-Tharanga-Sangakkara combine had managed all along to hide the big secret: a middle order as shaky as badly set souffle. Thilan Samaraweera proved to have a bat made exclusively of edges; Chamara Silva needed 10 deliveries to get off the mark with an edge down to third man, and all things seemed possible as the Kiwi bowlers finally discovered their mojo (and Donald his smile).

Followed a remarkable passage of play, featuring full blown panic by the Lankans, and an energetic, committed display by a Kiwi unit suddenly realizing that the finals berth they had fallen short of so many times before was a possibility after all. Dilshan fell to the 4th ball of the 32nd over; the score then was 161/2. From then, till the 41st over, SL progressed to 176/4 – a total of 15 runs in 50 deliveries.

Chamara Silva broke the spell in the 42nd over, first piercing the seemingly impenetrable field with a cover drive off Ryder, then nudging the next ball down to the third man fence. And off the first ball of the next over, he fell, swinging hard at a Southee delivery to get an inner edge back onto his stumps.

By then it was pure nerves. Samaraweera slog-swept Ryder for four; the Kiwis fielded badly and threw worse to give four, all-run, in the next over. 22 to get, five overs to get them in, and the batting power play was mandatorily taken – not that it made much difference to the Kiwis, who ever since Sangakkara’s departure had been keeping six men inside the ring anyway.

McKay, till then supremely economical, let one fly down the leg side for a wide plus four. Next ball, McKay got his radar back and angled one past Mathews’ outer edge. It seemed to touch something; the umpire turned down the appeal for caught behind and was upheld on the review (There is no snickometer, no hot spot – that leaves the decision to the third umpire’s naked eye, and unless the ball was biting a chunk out of the bat, he wasn’t going to see anything his on field colleague didn’t).

Relieved to be still standing, Mathews – injured, and with Jayawardene running for him – greeted Southee in the 47th over with a heave over long on for six, followed by a lofted straight drive for four. The two counter-punches put the Kiwis on the mat; it was just a matter of finishing it off. At which one umpire forgot how many balls there were in an over, at the other end the other umpire called dead ball thanks to premature fireworks even as Samaraweera hit what he thought were the winning runs…It was all very messy, but in the end, Samaraweera sealed it. Perhaps it was appropriate that the winning run was an outer edge that neatly bisected the keeper and slip.

Sri Lanka is in the final, with the bonus of having gotten a good scare that should wake them right up to the hidden danger, just in time for remedial action. The Kiwis are out of the tournament, yet again at the semi finals stage – and have a long flight back home to rue the seven deliveries they failed to play out in their own innings, and consider what may have been.

PostScript: A wicket (Pragyan Ojha) with the last ball he bowled in Test cricket. A wicket (Scott Styris) with his last ball in ODIs on home soil.

Channeling PG Wodehouse, I’d like to be included in the list of ‘100 people who asked, Who writes his scripts?’

Source: Prem Panicker, Yahoo Cricket

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