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September 7, 2009
With only 15 days until the Champions Trophy you'd think the teams' preparations would be ready for the final polish. But Sri Lanka and New Zealand still have a few experiments to complete and players to evaluate in their last chance before the bigger competition.
A four-game tournament is hardly ideal preparation but it's all these teams have. Some sections of the local and foreign media are querying the value of this series, which was originally scheduled to be a five-match series between New Zealand and Sri Lanka but expanded to include India and contracted to four games. Though the format has raised the odd eyebrow of players from both sides, Sri Lanka and New Zealand see it as a big opportunity to test themselves, especially against India, who have been in electric form in ODIs over the past year.
Both Sri Lanka and New Zealand are reliant on explosive openers and two men behind, with a worrying degree of rawness in the middle- and lower-orders. Both also carry a mixture of inexperienced batsmen and those whose potential remains unfulfilled due to a flawed approach at the crease.
Sanath Jayasuriya's lack of form is a serious concern. "We'd like to keep Sanath out of form, but we know that a player of his class can strike at any time," was Daniel Vettori's assessment.
Thilan Samaraweera and Thilina Kandamby, two solid but unspectacular players, are in the squad to bolster the middle order. For Samaraweera, who revived his Test career 18 months ago, it's another chance to improve a sorry ODI resume. If Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are brushed aside early, there is just too much pressure on a wobbly lower-middle order. Everyone has to put their hands up.
Muttiah Muralitharan's groin injury is being monitored and he is in doubt for the first match, putting pressure on Ajantha Mendis. Mendis poses a tough proposition, but New Zealand have taken confidence from the amount of time they've faced him recently. "If we can negate his ability to tear through batting line-ups that will set us up to be a bit more aggressive later on," Brendon McCullum said. "So far everything has been going well and hopefully we can gain that momentum again."
New Zealand appear to have less to worry about than Sri Lanka and can claim an edge over them thanks to the upset 2-0 Twenty20 win. But despite progressing smoothly from Tests to Twenty20s, Vettori's outfit is still trying to ease a massively influential player back into the side and get a couple of batsmen into form. Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder have been short of runs recently but gained some momentum in the Twenty20s, and the lack of runs from Martin Guptill and Jacob Oram and the inexperience of Grant Elliott and Neil Broom shows.
Shane Bond faces a big test after reasonable outings in the Twenty20s. Nathan McCullum is a part of this squad but not in the Champions Trophy, so his role remains uncertain with Jeetan Patel attempting to seal the second spinner's spot. New Zealand's 15-man squad includes names that don't evoke thoughts of class or assured temperament, so if they reach the final they should considered it a success.
Sangakkara addressed Sri Lanka's concerns on the eve of the tournament but was confident of a change in limited-overs fortunes when the teams stepped into the 50-over format. "You can read into a loss and come up with a number of theories but it's best to just deal with it and move on. The reality is that New Zealand outplayed us," he said. "It was unfortunate that we lost the first game after having such a strong start from Dilshan. In the second game, we were second best all throughout. One-day cricket is a different ball game. There are more overs and you have more time. You have to raise your standards. I'm confident of our abilities."
New Zealand have won five of 14 matches this year; at the end of 2008 they were tested by Bangladesh in similar conditions. They last played an ODI in March, losing to India 3-1, and need to prove their ability in the 50-over format. Sri Lanka's recent ODI form has been patchy; they have lost their last two home series against India, and have been convincing enough against the weak Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. They won the first three games of a five-match series against Pakistan but went on to lose the next two.
If the rankings are any guide, then second-placed India will arrive here confident of reaching the finals. New Zealand and Sri Lanka, at Nos 4 and 7 in the ICC's ODI rankings, will have to prove that rankings don't count for much. The first step comes tomorrow.
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