ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 1st semi-final, World Cup 2011, Colombo
Usual suspects rise to the occasion again
Between them, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have made seven semi-final appearances in five World Cups since 1996. When the whole world is watching, they raise their game a notch
Sidharth Monga in Colombo
March 28, 2011
The World Cup does something to these two teams, two teams that are not financial drawcards in an immensely closed-world cricket family. It does something wonderful to them, for they keep putting in inspired performances at world events, and often feature in the last two or three matches of these tournaments. Between them, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have made seven semi-final appearances in five World Cups since 1996, the year when Sri Lanka announced themselves as world-beaters. In the last five World Cups, New Zealand have missed the final four only in 1996 and 2003, and Sri Lanka in 1999. This is the second successive World Cup semi-final they are playing against each other; hardly ever are they miserable in other world events either. Except for Australia, no other big team has that good a record over the last 15 years.
While the other bigger teams are often at the risk of being bogged down by expectations, or jaded and tired thanks to their tight schedules, or in certain cases not good enough, Sri Lanka and New Zealand often find their best cricket in World Cups, playing freely and purposefully. When the whole world is watching, they raise their game a notch; in New Zealand's case, against much stronger opposition.
There is often a message to be sent out. At least for Sri Lanka, who are still not considered a big team by many accounts. For England, Australia and South Africa, they are still the sideshows; whenever they invite Sri Lanka for a home series, it is usually before or after the main event of their home seasons, in a slot that is otherwise kept for Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. It is not that there is some discussion in Sri Lankan team meetings to this effect, but the feeling remains among the team.
Mahela Jayawardene agrees. "What I see is we have produced some extraordinary players," he told ESPNcricinfo. "Yes, maybe we haven't got the recognition, which is true. But it hasn't deterred us or disappointed us. We have played consistent cricket for the last 15 years, ever since 1996; 1999 was probably the only time we didn't do ourselves justice, but since 1996 everyone who has played for Sri Lanka has played with a lot of pride and passion. We have carried that through." He agrees to there being the extra motivation at world events. That while their other good performances can go unnoticed, on the world stage they get the attention they deserve.
New Zealand's rising to such occasions is perhaps a bit more complex. They cannot claim to have enjoyed the kind of natural talent Sri Lanka do. They have a limited pool of players to draw from, which is further crippled by recurring injuries to some of their best talent. Except for 1992, when they became a threat only once Martin Crowe's team started dominating in the league stage, they have never been favourites. As cricketers, they seem to like it when nobody gives them a chance, when people have to be proved wrong.
And they don't get to the semi-finals by just winning one knockout game, as the argument this time may be. In 1999 and in 2007, they went through rigorous league stages and Super Sixes / Eights and were genuinely one of the four best teams over those World Cups. Even in this World Cup, they beat Pakistan in the league stages, the only team other than New Zealand to have beaten two title contenders so far. Leading into this World Cup, though, New Zealand were sleepwalking through whitewashes at the hands of Bangladesh and India, at venues the World Cup would be played at.
Somehow, as they have done in the past, New Zealand have found enough fire and will to make their sixth semi-final in 10 World Cups. There is nothing tangible that explains the transformation. Yes, the coach has changed, but to put it all down to John Wright and Allan Donald would be to do injustice to the players who have put recent disappointments behind them. As Daniel Vettori said, "Look, John [Wright] has been fantastic for us. The players took the blame for those losses, and I think they should get credit for the wins as well. It has to be a combination of the two."
Tomorrow one of these proud teams will bow out. It is a stage that should ideally get the best out of them. Sri Lanka once again will want the world to look at them when everybody is so engrossed in the other semi-final that they have to request journalists at press conferences to refrain from asking questions about the India-Pakistan game. New Zealand have even more people to prove wrong, for once again they are massive underdogs. More so than against South Africa, because Sri Lanka are likely to neither relent nor break. And they are at home.
Whatever the result be, it is good to see the unusual usual suspects in the final four once again.
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