It was Sri Lanka’s as well as Muthiah Muralitharan’s night. After a brief middle order collapse, Sri Lanka entered the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup beating New Zealand by 5 wickets at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Muralitharan, playing his last match in Sri Lanka, made the match a memorable one by picking two wickets when New Zealand batted. The Lankans now travel to Mumbai for the big final hoping to give Muralitharan the best farewell gift that a cricketer could get – the World Cup.
On a sunny afternoon, New Zealand won the toss and decided to bat first, despite recent results at the ground where chasing has been relatively easy. Perhaps, the Kiwi skipper Daniel Vettori felt that they were better off bowling second. The Kiwis brought in seamer Andy McKay in place of Luke Woodcock. Sri Lanka chose to retain the same eleven that defeated England in the quarter final despite Muralitharan not being 100% fit.
The start was solid for the Kiwis. After just one over from the seamer Lasith Malinga, skipper Kumar Sangakkara turned to spin. McCullum hit Rangana Herath for a six over deep square leg but fell in the 8th over trying to repeat the shot as he lost his stumps. Jesse Ryder and Martin Guptill carried on and the runs came off Angelo Mathews as the spinners proved difficult to hit. As their struggles against spin continued, Ryder was caught behind off Muralitharan to a delivery that bounced more than usual, took the edge of his bat and landed in Sangakkara’s gloves. New Zealand’s best batsman Ross Taylor was now at the crease and he had to see Guptill too depart to the pavilion. Malinga, brought back for a second spell, struck with his third ball with a searing yorker and had Guptill’s defences shattered. The Kiwis were in real trouble at 84/3 in the 22nd over.
Scott Styris and Taylor had the responsibility of doing the repair job. The spinners tightened the screws and the runs were really hard to come for the Kiwis. However, when Malinga made a mistake with his lengths, Styris was quick to latch on to the opportunity and score two boundaries. Sangakkara rotated his spinners very well with the result that New Zealand could not be comfortable with any single bowler to try and increase the scoring rate. Malinga’s third spell was greeted with two more boundaries by Styris. New Zealand were going along well without further losses and planning an attack in the last 10 overs when Ajantha Mendis had Taylor pull a short ball straight to the fielder at deep midwicket. Taylor was not at all comfortable during his stay at the crease.
Kane Williamson revealed why he is so highly rated by the Kiwis as he attacked Malinga and Muralitharan with boundaries. After a brief cameo, he fell to a full delivery from Malinga that trapped him in front of the crease. From 192/5, the rest of the batting capitulated as the Kiwis were dismissed for 217 in the 49th over. Muralitharan earned a wicket off his last delivery in Sri Lanka as he had Styris trapped in front. The spinners were again the pick for Sri Lanka as they bowled 35 overs and shared seven wickets. They were well supported by Malinga who took wickets at crucial moments and ended with 3/55.
Upul Tharanga and Tillakaratne Dilshan continued from where they left off against England. The start was rollicking as Tharanga jumped out and hit Nathan McCullum straight down for a six. Tharanga was the dominant partner in the opening partnership of 40, with 30 runs being scored by him. Tim Southee got the breakthrough for the Kiwis as Tharanga was caught at point by an amazingly athletic Jesse Ryder. Once Tharanga was dismissed, Dilshan started scoring and with Sangakkara eased the pressure with sensible batting. The partnership raised 120 runs and Sri Lanka appeared to be coasting to another thumping win when the famous Kiwi fightback happened.
Dilshan was the first victim of the fightback as he hit a ball straight to Ryder in the 33rd over. In the next over, Mahela Jayawardene was trapped in front of the crease by Vettori. The pressure got on Sangakkara as he uppercut Andy McKay to the fielder at third man. 160/1 had become 168/4 and suddenly the Kiwis sensed that they might be able to pull off something similar to what they did against South Africa the other night. Their cause was helped by some poor defensive batting by Chamara Silva and Thilan Samaraweera until a message came from the dressing room that this was one-day cricket, not test cricket.
The message seemed to have worked as Silva hit successive fours off Ryder before he too was dismissed inside edging a delivery from Tim Southee on to the stumps. Angelo Mathews and Samaraweera negotiated a few tricky overs before Mathews decided it was time to finish things off. He hit Southee for an on driven six and then hit another four over the bowler’s head to bring the equation down to 4 from 18 balls. The win was duly achieved in the 48th over when Samaraweera edged between the wicket keeper and a widish slip fielder for four runs. Sri Lanka were in the final, their second successive one.
New Zealand will be disappointed that their batsmen could not score 235 after being in a position to do so. The failure to bat the full 50 overs meant that the total of 217 would be inadequate. Their bowling was lion-hearted as always and one more wicket during the Sri Lankan wobble would probably have given them an opening to target the tail. But that was not to be and the Kiwis depart losing their sixth World Cup semi-final. It was a good performance for a team that had a bitter experience the last two times they visited the subcontinent. John Wright and Allan Donald are doing a good job mentoring this team and they need to be given a longer run to enable New Zealand to be a much better team.
Sri Lanka were lucky that they did not lose another wicket during the middle order collapse. However, the Sri Lankan think tank should be serious about their lower middle order, which is very brittle. They cannot afford a similar collapse in the final. In any case, Chamara Kapugedera is a far better choice than Chamara Silva. The bowling was excellent and the spinners once again came to the party. The final will be a big game for Sri Lanka and they will hope to win the World Cup again after a gap of 15 years. Muralitharan would love to go out on a high and his team members would love to play well and win the cup for their talismanic bowler.