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March 23, 2004
Shane Warne was the biggest story before the series, and he has remained the hottest topic right through to the finale. After a remarkable comeback to the international arena, Warne finds himself within striking distance of Courtney Walsh's world record of 519 wickets. With the Sinhalese Sports Club pitch offering turn and bounce, there is every chance that Warne will create history.
Warne's return has been sensational. For the majority of his 12-month drug ban, he concentrated on reducing his golf handicap. But as the New Year arrived, he embarked upon a rigorous training programme that leaves him fitter and trimmer thahn ever before, and beaming with energy. His bowling has regained some of his mid-1990s verve, and his 20 wickets at 15.7 are the single most important reason why Australia head into this final Test with a 2-0 lead.
Ricky Ponting, his captain, while stressing that the team always comes before the individual for Australia, will give him every chance of extending his career tally (currently 511 wickets) past Walsh's: "I can't bowl the ball for him, but I can help him out with a few more overs if he wants to bowl and is close to the record. If he keeps bowling as well as he has been then there is a huge chance that he will be able to reach it. He is going to get some assistance from the pitch."
Warne's performance has left no-one in any doubt as to who is the best legspinner in Australia, and, although he mined a rich seam of scalps during Warne's drugs ban, Stuart MacGill may now have to return to the bench once more. Ponting believes the pitch will offer a little extra bounce and pace, and Australia are seriously considering the inclusion of a third seamer, probably Brad Williams, who has bowled his heart out in the nets all tour.
Australia have faced tough selection decisions all tour, and this third game throws up familiar conundrums. Ponting says: "There are a lot of things we have to consider going into this game: has the balance been right or not? Do we need another quick bowler or not? We have got to toss up those things today and see what balance we come up with. This selection is going to be very difficult."
Andrew Symonds's position is in the greatest danger. Picked as an allrounder who provided a useful seam option alongside a two-pronged pace attack, he was used sparingly with the ball at Kandy, and his inclusion ahead of Simon Katich, who scored 125 and 77 not out in his most recent Test, is increasingly hard to justify. "We just needed someone there to give us a couple of overs of medium-pace or some tight overs of spin, which Symo was able to do in that first Test match, but since then he has been fairly sparingly used," admitted Ponting. "We have to weigh up whether we need that again, or [whether] we go back to a batsman in that position."
Whatever way they go, Australia aim to finish on a high. "We have made a bit of a commitment in the [team] meeting that we were going to endeavour to finish the tour as well as we started it," said Ponting. "This is a team that has set a lot of records over the years and achieved a lot of things that other teams have not been able to achieve, and there wouldn't have been many sides that have come here and won a Test series 3-0. That is something that we want to do." In fact, no team has ever whitewashed Sri Lanka at home.
The Warne Show, and the hype over the world record, has overshadowed most things, including the possible - indeed probable - end of Hashan Tillakaratne's rein as Test captain. He has managed only one win in ten Tests, and the guillotine is poised to fall as soon as the final Test is finished. With 81 runs in four innings in the series, even his future as a player cannot be assured, as the selectors have hinted that they may look to the future during the forthcoming Zimbabwe tour.
Tillakaratne admits that the outlook is bleak but just wants to finish on a high: "It does not bother me whether I remain as captain for the next series. If I am stepping down, I just want to go on a high note and try and perform at my level best. As soon as I got the captaincy I was scoring runs but it suddenly disappeared. I have to back myself and try and come out of the situation. We have dominated the last two Tests and it is high time we overcome all our mistakes and try and win this Test."
Sri Lanka are also considering changes for the final match. The merry-go-round search for a second spinner has become so frustrating that they may just throw Nuwan Kulasekera, a lively seamer with an energetic action and the ability to swing the ball both ways, into the fray. But if they do go for a spinner then Rangana Herath, a slow left-armer, may get a chance.
In the batting department, Sri Lanka welcome back Thilan Samaraweera, a figure who is increasingly being looked at as a top-order fixture rather than lower-middle-order insurance policy. Samaraweera's record - 857 runs at 65.92 in 15 matches - is excellent, and Sri Lanka will probably now slip him into the No. 3 position, which will have the advantage of giving Kumar Sangakkara some respite after keeping wicket.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Marvan Atapattu, 2 Sanath Jayasuriya, 3 Thilan Samaraweera, 4 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 5 Mahela Jayawardene, 6 Hashan Tillakaratne (capt), 7 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Nuwan Zoysa, 10 Nuwan Kulasekera, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan.
Australia (probable): 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Darren Lehmann, 6 Simon Katich, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Michael Kasprowicz, 10 Jason Gillespie, 11 Brad Williams.
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