Sri Lanka book themselves semi-final date with Australia
After their glum-faced humiliation against India the smiles returned to Sri Lanka's players on Saturday as they booked themselves into the World Cup semi-finals with a 74 run victory against Zimbabwe at Buffalo Park.
Needing to 257 to win after opener Marvan Atapattu, the Man of the Match, scored a polished and hard-working tenth one-day hundred, Zimbabwe were bowled out for 183 in 41.3 overs.
Sri Lanka will now face tournament favourites Australia in the first semi-final at Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, a venue that promises to suit their spin-based attack.
And despite Australia's aura of invincibility and Sri Lanka's earlier Super Six thrashing, Sanath Jayasuriya believes that his side has a chance against the world champions, saying afterwards: "History suggests that the ball will turn and anything can happen on the day."
Jayasuriya's side had looked in firm control of this match after winning an important toss and then producing a solid batting performance, the cornerstone of their large total being provided by Atapattu who carried his bat throughout the innings.
The patient right-hander compiled significant partnerships with Jayasuriya (41 in 12.2 overs), Avishka Gunawardene (83 in 18 overs), Aravinda de Silva (51 in 10 overs) and Kumar Sangakkara (52 in 6.2 overs).
But Sri Lanka's opening bowlers took a pounding early on and Zimbabwe were on target for victory whilst stalwart left-hander Andy Flower, who had early released a statement confirming his retirement from international cricket after the World Cup, milked Sri Lanka's spinners easily.
Zimbabwe were 140 for three in the 29th over of the innings and the possibility of Flower, Zimbabwe's outstanding cricketer during the past decade, who had nudged and nurdled his way to 38 from 50 balls, bowing of the game with a match-winning innings loomed increasingly large.
However, a poor lbw decision by umpire Brian Jerling off the bowling of Aravinda De Silva handed Sri Lanka back the initiative. Flower stood aghast and replays showed him to be justifiably aggrieved as the ball clearly hit his bat.
Sri Lanka then tightened the screws, grabbing two more quick wickets. Tatenda Taibu was bamboozled by a fizzing off-break from Muttiah Muralitharan and Andy Blignaut tapped a simple catch to de Silva at short cover to leave Zimbabwe on 151 for six.
Grant Flower, who scored 31 from 52 balls, tried to glue the innings together but the runs dried up as Jayasuriya, so well versed in the art of defending totals on slow turners, rotated his spinners cleverly.
Rookie all-rounder Sean Ervine added 27 in 36 balls with Flower before Chaminda Vaas, whose first five overs leaked 40 runs, pegged back his middle stump with the second ball of his third spell.
Heath Streak came to the crease stocked full of confidence after his batting heroics against New Zealand as Zimbabwe started the final ten overs needing 79 runs for victory.
But the match lurched to a quick conclusion as Streak holed out in the deep and Jayasuriya clung onto a stinging return catch from Flower.
Vaas wrapped up the match when he bowled Douglas Hondo to take his 20th wicket of the tournament, equaling Geoff Allot and Shane Warne's record World Cup tally.
Earlier, Sri Lanka's batsmen had eschewed their normal free-flowing style with the bat, opting instead for a strategy of steady accumulation after winning the toss and batting first.
Even the normally explosive Jayasuriya struggled to time the ball on the turgid surface, facing 44 balls for his 22 and waiting until the 11th over before finding the fence.
The skipper eventually nicked a catch behind before Avishka Gunawardene justified his inclusion ahead of the out-of-form Mahela Jayawardene with 41 from 62 balls.
Atapattu played the sheet anchor role perfectly, patiently waiting for run scoring opportunities and running hard between the wickets, before reaching his second hundred of the tournament in the final over of the innings, finishing with 103 from 127 balls.
The right-hander was well supported by the middle order, particularly de Silva and Sangakkara, who added impetus to the innings after Gunawardene was caught off a leading edge.
De Silva maneouvred the ball around expertly for his 25 before edging an attempted late cut and Sangakkara made the most of Hondo's spilled chance at mid-wicket, crashing 35 from 25 balls.
Heath Streak, the Zimbabwean skipper, was the pick of the bowlers - eight of whom were used during the course of the innings - claiming two for 40.