September 27, 2002

Sri Lankan spinners overwhelm Australia

These are golden times for Sri Lanka. After 19 years of civil war peace beckons, the stock market is booming and the tourist industry is flourishing. There is now hopeful optimism for the future where there was once only cynicism.

In such a context yesterday's crushing semi-final victory over Australia in the ICC Champions Trophy may be irrelevant, but it appeared to reflect the buoyant mood of the nation.

The rivalry between Sri Lanka and Australia on the cricket field is intense: a relationship studded with acrimony and controversy; from the Muralitharan chucking affair to the Australians reluctance to tour Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup.

For Sri Lankans, feelings run so high that this semi-final clash was approached like a World Cup final. Indeed, this was Sri Lanka's biggest game since their 1996 triumph at Lahore.

The state-owned Daily News produced a special 15-page colour supplement on the game, illegal printing presses churned out forged match tickets on to the black market and crowds thronged around the turnstiles outside the stadium during the morning of the game. Thousands were turned away disappointed, forced back from the stadium gate by policemen mounted on horseback.

Those that were fortunate enough to lay their hands on a ticket enjoyed one of the great days in Sri Lanka's cricket history. The atmosphere was electric. Sri Lanka... Sri Lanka... Sri Lanka... they screamed from the terraces, waving their flags delightedly, scarcely believing what they were seeing as their cherished cricketers romped towards victory against their archrivals.

Sri Lanka's strategy in this game was unashamedly spin-based. It may not be a recipe for success in next year's World Cup, but it represented their best chance of victory against Australia in this tournament. They jettisoned their most penetrative pace bowler, Dilhara Fernando, a difficult decision considering his recent form, and picked three specialist spinners.

It proved spectacularly successful on the dusty Premadasa pitch as Australia were bowled out for 162, their lowest score against Sri Lanka in the 44-match history between the two sides. Out of the 48.4 overs bowled, the slow bowlers skilfully delivered 39.4 of them. Backed up with some sharp ground fielding, they overwhelmed Australia's top order.

The target was never going to be enough. Australia burst out on to the field in the second innings, imposing in their famous green and gold strips. But although Glenn McGrath came close to dismissing the Sri Lankan captain in his first over, their normally dangerous pace bowling attack was blunted by the featherbed surface.

Normally so polished and professional in all that they do, they were also sloppy in the field, providing extra runs and dropping chances. Marvan Atapattu was the main beneficiary, surviving three chances on his way to scoring the only 50 of the game, finishing with 51 from 113 balls.

Warne spun the ball sharply enough to suggest that he would have threatened if provided with greater runs, dismissing Jayasuriya with a flipper after the left-hander had started the innings well with 42 from 51 balls. But he was unable to make further inroads as Kumar Sangakkara (48) provided Atapattu with solid support in a 75-run stand for the second fittingly.

The pair were separated when Sangakkara feathered a catch to Adam Gilchrist. And McGrath trapped Atapattu lbw with an off-cutter, but Sri Lanka still cruised to the victory target with 10 overs to spare.

Although Sri Lanka dominated the match, they had started the afternoon poorly. Ricky Ponting won the toss and openers Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden briefly threatened a mammoth score. Pulasthi Gunaratne showed signs of nerves, conceding 15 in his first two overs, and Chaminda Vaas was punished for dropping short. Australia were 48 without loss after just six overs.

Sri Lanka, however, had prepared for such an eventuality. During the build-up to the match off-spinner Kumar Dharmasena had practiced hard with the new ball in the nets. Jayasuriya acted quickly, pulling him into the attack in the seventh over.

More surprising was the introduction of Aravinda de Silva in the next over. But the decision proved inspirational as the veteran helped turn the game, striking with his fifth delivery. Hayden, determined to impose his authority on the spinners, was clea bowled after dancing down the wicket. Three balls later Gilchrist, who had raced to 31 from just 24 balls, was dismissed trying to loft Dharmasena straight down the ground and Australia lost their way.

De Silva, once again displaying his remarkable big match temperament , stemmed the run flow with a miserly spell, conceding just 16 runs from his 10 overs. From the other end Vaas returned to trap Ponting (3) lbw before Jayasuriya ran out Darren Lehmann for a duck with a direct hit from short fine-leg. Australia had lost four wickets for eight runs in 5.1 overs.

Damien Martyn, returning after a hip injury, and Michael Bevan threatened a recovery with a 39-run stand but another brilliant piece of fielding, this time from Russel Arnold, ended any hope of a competitive score as Martyn was run out for 28. Next over, Arnold plucked a head high catch out of the air to get rid of Bevan and Australia were 92/6.

Shane Watson (7) then failed to pick Muttiah Muralitharan's floater and was caught at short fine-leg. Warne - whose arrival at the crease had produced a deafening bout of jeering from the crowd - was Australia's top scorer with 36. With support from Brett Lee (18) he chiselled out 44 runs for the eighth wicket before a final collapse when the last three wickets fell for just nine runs.