Form and expectation favour New Zealand
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Start time 1100 local (2200 GMT, previous day)
The country is holding its breath. The New Zealand team has spruced up its cricket machine one part at a time over the past few weeks, bossing matches from the start at times, roaring back to win them at others, and now their public is as primed for the big event as they are. This team, with a bold leader in the vanguard, two star batsmen in the batting engine room, and real menace in their attack, holds New Zealand's best-ever hope of winning cricket's big prize, the nation feels.
Tens of thousands of kilometres away, another island nation has had its cricket balloon pricked. Sri Lanka's hope for the World Cup has not burst entirely, but it is spluttering about the room, deflating quickly. Wednesday's ignominious loss to Zimbabwe in a warm-up match was the final ill omen for many. Sri Lanka's fans are passionate, but are largely not obsessive. Many may skip the 3:30am starts until the team gives them reason to believe again.
So as New Zealand arrive, wanting only to sustain their success, confident the bowlers will not lose their lines, and lifted by the feeling that someone in the top seven will always find a way to fire, Sri Lanka are scrambling around, searching for that spark that will set their campaign alight. In past world tournaments, the visitors have found it in unlikely places. Rangana Herath's five wickets for three runs set them ablaze in Bangladesh last year. A 23-year-old Lasith Malinga's four wickets in four balls kickstarted their 2007 surge in the Caribbean. A newly-promoted Tillakaratne Dilshan's sparkling starts carried them through in the 2009 World T20. A glance through Sri Lanka's likely XI suggests they have the quality to win the tournament, but at present, not the form.
Christchurch has been wonderful in the approach to the curtain raiser, but on the eve of the big day, a worsening weather forecast has slightly soured the mood. Light rain is expected until about mid-day, and is then expected to return later in the evening. Temperatures are not expected to climb above 15 degrees.
New Zealand:WWLWW (last five matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WLLLW
In the spotlight
Leader. Figurehead. Talisman. Brendon McCullum will have the eyes of a nation on him over the next six weeks, and it all begins in his adopted hometown. As someone who never takes a backward step he seems energised by the prospect. But Saturday morning will surely feel different to any other match? "I normally sleep pretty well," he said when asked about pre-match nerves. He knows personally, and as a team, there is not much more that could have been done.
At the other end of the spectrum Angelo Mathews had been soaring in the first eight months of 2014, but has since watched his side lose 11 of the 18 completed ODIs they have played since mid-October. The verve and the energy that characterised Sri Lanka for much of last year appears to have depleted, but still, the team is full of players who have tasted extraordinary success. Mathew's job, in his first World Cup as captain, is to inspire his men again, while providing the sturdy finishes and canny overs that have been instrumental to Sri Lanka's good results in recent years.
All 15 New Zealand players are expected to be available for the match. With Trent Boult and Tim Southee having had success at Hagley Oval as a pair, they are frontrunners to take the new balls on Saturday. The top order is relatively settled, but McCullum did mention that his team would keep an eye on the weather, and make late adjustments to the XI if necessary.
New Zealand: (probable) 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Brendon McCullum (capt), 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Grant Elliott, 6 Luke Ronchi (wk), 7 Corey Anderson, 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Adam Milne, 11 Trent Boult
Replacement quick Dushmantha Chameera landed in New Zealand on Thursday, and as such, does not have a great chance of playing in the first match. With Jeevan Mendis having hit a fifty against Zimbabwe on Wednesday, Sri Lanka may play him in the lower middle order again. Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal are also competing for a middle-order spot. Karunaratne's decent outings in the warm-ups perhaps give him the edge.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 2 Lahiru Thirimanne, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt), 6 Dimuth Karunaratne/Dinesh Chandimal, 7 Jeevan Mendis, 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Nuwan Kulasekara, 10 Rangana Herath, 11 Lasith Malinga
Pitch and conditions
Mathews expected the Hagley Oval surface to be full of runs, but given Sri Lanka's recent troubles against high-quality swing bowling at this venue, he may think twice before batting first. If the outfield is going to be damp, and chances of a Duckworth-Lewis intervention are high, teams may prefer to chase anyway.
Stats and trivia
- Kumar Sangakkara has 13,693 ODI runs. He requires 12 to overtake Ricky Ponting and move to second in the all-time list, behind Sachin Tendulkar.
- To support the belief New Zealand are one of the three main contenders for the title, they have the third-best win/loss percentage in ODIs since the start of 2014 of teams appearing this tournament.
- Lasith Malinga averages 23.89 against New Zealand. Against other top eight nations, he has only done better against West Indies.
- Since the beginning of 2014, Kane Williamson's ODI average has increased by more than 10 runs - from 35.41 to 46.26
- Sri Lanka have defeated New Zealand in their last five World Cup meetings. The last time New Zealand beat Sri Lanka in a World Cup was in 1992.
"We knew the expectation would rise so we were able to deal with that a while ago. One thing we discussed a lot is being really stable emotionally ourselves. The game has its ups and downs anyway without us adding our own ups and downs."
Brendon McCullum on dealing with the weight of a nation's hopes
"If it's a good wicket, we'll try and bat first. We've got the bowling to try and stop the opposition, but if we have to bowl first, we've got the experience in our batting lineup."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando