Elegant Flower sees Zimbabwe to final
In the best match of the tournament so far, Zimbabwe won a battle of nerves to beat Sri Lanka by four wickets and claim a place in the final of the Sharjah Cup. It was Zimbabwe's first win over Sri Lanka for three years.
Grant Flower, with his 37th one-day half-century, calmly helped finish the good work that Zimbabwe accomplished in the field - after being asked to bowl first, they restricted Sri Lanka to 193. With Heath Streak for company, Flower nursed Zimbabwe to their target after Sri Lanka grabbed three wickets for nine runs to reduce them from a comfortable 158 for 3 to a shaky 167 for 6.
Sri Lanka's slow bowlers kept their team in the battle, grabbing important wickets as fortunes swung to and fro. Under pressure in only his second ODI, the 20-year-old legspinner Kaushal Lokuarachchi grabbed 3 for 37 and was easily Sri Lanka's biggest gain in a match that will be Sanath Jayasuriya's last as captain.
Lokuarachchi has a quick run-up and arm action, and the ball that get rid of Sean Ervine for a duck was one of the highlights of the match. Well flighted, it slanted across the left-hander, drew him forward, landed in the bowlers' footmarks, beat the batsman as he prodded tentatively, and turned late and sharply to hit the stumps.
Zimbabwe had the edge at the halfway stage of their innings, despite playing around with their batting order. Tatenda Taibu joined Flower at the fall of the third wicket, after Gavin Rennie (26) nicked Lokuarachchi to Prasanna Jayawardene behind the stumps. But Taibu, showing no nervousness, struck a breezy 31 and helped put on a crucial 55 runs for the fourth wicket with Flower.
Their partnership helped Zimbabwe consolidate after Craig Wishart and Doug Marillier's early fireworks. They rattled up 26 runs in the first three overs, with ten coming in the first over from a wayward Charitha Buddhika. They put on 36 before Wishart (14) shouldered arms to an incutter from Prabath Nissanka and watched in dismay as it crashed into his stumps.
Jayasuriya introduced Kumar Dharmasena before Muttiah Muralitharan, and he slowed the Zimbabwean charge, bowling faster and flatter through the air, and conceded just seven runs in his first five overs. When Muralitharan did come on, he struck in his first over to dispose of Marillier (32) with a bat-pad catch that Marillier suggested had only involved the pad. But that was Murali's only wicket, and it made a telling difference in the final outcome.
Earlier Streak and Andy Blignaut, with three wickets apiece, led a spirited Zimbabwean effort in the field. Sri Lanka were strangled by a steady medium-pace attack, good catching and attacking captaincy. Five Sri Lankan batsmen passed 20, but the top-score was Hashan Tillekeratne's 31.
Sri Lanka's problems began with the second ball of the match. Streak angled one across Jayasuriya, induced an inside-edge and saw the bails fly. Jayasuriya walked off with a duck, a sad return for his 300th one-day international. He is the sixth person to play as many.
Marvan Atapattu briefly counter-attacked, easing the pressure with six well-struck boundaries. Then Dion Ebrahim prompted a change of script, catching Avishka Gunawardene (24) off Blignaut with a full-length dive at cover, plucking the ball while still airborne.
Kumar Sangakkara, with hundreds in his last two innings, marched in with the score at 51 for 2. He was promptly handed another rescue mission when Atapattu (29) chased Ervine's first ball and nicked it to Taibu (58 for 3).
But Sangakkara (25) flopped when it really mattered. Just when Sri Lanka looked set on the road to recovery, he pulled a short ball from Raymond Price to a running Grant Flower on the midwicket boundary (106 for 4).
Streak returned and soon removed Dharmasena (19), who popped an easy catch to Rennie. Four quick wickets followed, for just ten runs. Nissanka helped add 25 for the last wicket, but it was all too little and too late. Zimbabwe would sweep past the modest target, into the final.