Gently trampled upon
The result may not have been a whole lot different, but Zimbabwe put on a better show in their second game of the tournament - albeit by 56 runs - showing glimpses of genuine potential even as Sri Lanka muscled their way to two wins in as many games, and virtually assured themselves a place in the main draw. Upul Tharanga, the latest in the line of left-handed batsmen from Sri Lanka, improved upon his already impressive limited-overs record, essaying a chanceless century that put 285 on the board and the game past Zimbabwe.
It was Anthony Ireland, the man his team calls Scotland, and Tawanda Mupariwa, who should pat themselves on the back, for a tight opening spell, straight up and down, controlled and controlling, that ensured that Sri Lanka did not get off to a flyer. For the first time in six ODIs, Sri Lanka did not cross 300. As Mahela Jayawardene was to exclaim at the end of the match, "the pitch here was slower. It was not easy to score off. We needed to play smart cricket. On a slowish pitch, it was a decent score." Had it not been for the application and deftness of Tharanga, who seemed totally at ease at the crease against all manner of bowling, Sri Lanka may have struggled further.
That Sanath Jayasuriya and Jayawardene were both sent back without a single boundary between them showed just how straight the opening bowlers kept it. But merely being straight was not enough to get past Tharanga. Cricket is often conveniently used as a metaphor for life, and the temptation to do that was strong on the day. Tharanga made his debut about eight months after the deadly Tsunami of December 26 destroyed his house in the fishing village of Ambalangoda, not far from Colombo. Tharanga moved to Colombo, and under the watchful eye of Kumar Sangakkara, who not only gave Tharanga his entire kit, but reportedly sheltered him as well.
Against Zimbabwe, at 49 for 2, Tharanga and Sangakkara came together, and although you can hardly describe that position as worrisome for Sri Lanka, there was some building to do, and the canny Sangakkara certainly nursed his younger, but no less prolific, ward through a long period of building. The two were together a little more than one-and-a-half hours, and 165 runs came in that time, off only 169 balls.
Sangakkara barely played a shot in anger, but he certainly irritated the Zimbabweans no end, dropping the ball into gaps and haring off for singles with infuriating regularity. If anything, he scored quicker than Tharanga who was scoring the bulk of the boundaries. Tharanga was especially strong in the arc from wide-point to extra-cover, driving with an angled bat, ensuring that he struck the ball wide of the fielder or over him. When he did play with the full face of the bat, it was with no less effect - like the time he casually lifted Mupariwa for a six back over his head.
Tharanga's numbers are truly impressive - this was his 6th hundred from 31 games, and with only three half-centuries in the mix, he really has a penchant for converting starts to big scores. At the moment he's in the middle of a rum patch, having crossed 100 in four of his last nine knocks. What will be especially pleasing to Tom Moody, Sri Lanka's coach, is that Tharanga does not have an obvious weakness. His batting is well-developed all round, and though he is strong square of the wicket he does not fish outside the off, and this means that the risks of playing with an angled bat are minimised.
Sangakkara's contribution, an 86-ball 80 was central to Sri Lanka's success. Had he fallen early, there might have been cause for Tharanga to trade some of his fluency for careful self-preservation. Once the two had taken the score on 214, a big total was always on the cards. If you had to find fault with Tharanga, it is that he does not go on for too long after reaching three figures. Although he's had plenty of overs in hand when reaching the landmark, his highest score is 120. But that might only be a factor of strength, endurance, and experience. Often it takes only one huge score for the breakthrough to be made, and several tall scores follow.
It's not so much of a struggle zeroeing in on Zimbabwe's problems. They're simply unable to sustain the intensity over a meaningful span of time, whether with bat or ball. They lack the firepower to make things happen, and, as their batting showed again today - barring a few sparkling moments - the wherewithal to resist. Kevin Curran, their coach, however had a different and sober perspective: "Every game, we try and improve and raise the bar. The players know that. We did well in the first part of the game but it was a shame that we did not get upto 250 in the end."
In the end, all they could do was provide some decent match practice to Sri Lanka, and stretch their bowlers a bit, exactly what the men from the Emerald Isle would have hoped for.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo