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With one of the strongest and most experienced top orders in world cricket, it is the middle order that need to find form for Sri Lanka to be a real force
Andrew Fernando in Pallekele
September 27, 2012
For both sides, the script for the Super Eights opener in Pallekele will be a familiar one, though it is difficult to imagine either team will have been involved in a 20-over match fired by so much drama.
New Zealand first appeared to be flying towards 190 in the sixteenth over, before losing their way at the death against a Sri Lanka pace attack bowling with renewed vigour. Sri Lanka were then sauntering comfortably after a blazing opening stand, before Tim Southee's yorker barrage brought New Zealand howling back into the match. Lahiru Thirimanne then played what must be one of the gutsiest strokes ever played in this format to tie the match and yield the floor to the madness of the last-ball climax.
It is a match though, that Sri Lanka will feel they should never have allowed to get so close. They held their nerve better than New Zealand in the end, which proved the difference, but given the quality of the start they had had from their openers, the chase should have been nothing more than a cruise from 119 for 1 after 12 overs. Sri Lanka have bolstered their batting and finishing through Angelo Mathews, Jeevan Mendis and Thisara Perera in the last few years, but in one match, they have suddenly allowed familiar doubts about their "soft" middle order to resurface.
New Zealand had smothered a similarly flourishing Sri Lanka chase in Colombo, winning that match by three runs, but this was all the way back in 2009. Dilshan had also starred on that occasion, leading off a chase of 142 with a 28-ball 57 that saw his side hit reach 75 in the eighth over to give his teammates a seemingly simple chase at a required run rate of less than six an over. That they very nearly let another match slip in the same way will irk Sri Lanka who now believe they have middle order substance to balance the star-power in their loaded top three.
They were up against death bowling of rare quality and intelligence from Southee, who incidentally, also performed an eerily similar resuscitation with the ball in the face of a Cameron White onslaught to tie a match in Christchurch. But given the depth in Sri Lanka's batting, and the fact that they have groomed two of the cleanest hitters in the game to provide exactly the kind of cool-headed finishes their strong start required, Sri Lanka will be disappointed to revert back to old habits.
Mathews' expansive ambitions were hamstrung by Southee's length, but in the last two overs, perhaps a little innovation was required to break the lock on boundaries. In the end, it was left to Thirimanne - an accumulator batting out of position - to show the kind of daring that sent the match into the Super Over. It is not as if Mathews lacks the ability to counter good bowling. Over the last two years he has proved repeatedly and resoundingly that he is the man-for-a-crisis Sri Lanka's limited overs side yearned for years before his arrival. But if he is to make good on his considerable promise, perhaps he should be disappointed he had only made 12 from the 11 balls he faced.
Likewise for Perera, who has improved significantly as a bowler, but has not yet built new strokes into his repertoire to play the sort of innings that was required. If he is to play as a specialist batsman, as he did in this match, perhaps the diligence that has seen him transform his other discipline would serve him well with blade in hand.
In the end Sri Lanka overcame their stutter, and a meandering tournament was given its first compelling encounter. In the Super Over, Lasith Malinga also proved that despite the aspersions that have been cast on his fearsomeness at the finish in recent months, he remains the force he has always been. But as a batting unit, Sri Lanka cannot continue to rely so heavily on an aging top three. Dilshan, aged 35, Mahela Jayawardene, 35, and Kumar Sangakkara, 34, contributed more than 80% of the team's runs on the evening, and if Sri Lanka are to live up to their favourites tag in World Twenty20, the youngsters will surely have to show their mettle as well. The core of Sri Lanka's future is in that middle order.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri LankaFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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