Maharoof a willing replacement for Vaas
Chaminda Vaas's hamstring injury has proved a blessing in disguise for Sri Lanka. Vaas bowled masterfully against West Indies in the Test series, but his body was creaking after his county stint with Worcestershire and he needs a break. Had he started the Indian Oil Cup he would, no doubt, have excelled, as he invariably does whenever he slips into Sri Lanka's blue and gold colours. But Sri Lanka would have learnt little and Farveez Maharoof, still a fringe player in the one-day squad, may have not played.
Two matches into a tournament billed as `The Road to the World Cup', Sri Lanka's management team will have been thrilled by Maharoof's allround performances thus far. After making his debut in Zimbabwe last April and generally impressing in 2004, Maharoof was still under pressure in this tournament. Question marks were being raised about the lack of hard evidence to support his much talked about `promise' as a batsman. And without his batting, people wondered whether he could cut it as a top-flight fast bowler.
So the absence of Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa, Sri Lanka's first-choice new ball pair, handed him a golden opportunity. Top-class sportsmen don't waste such chances. Under pressure when he walked to the crease in Sri Lanka's first game, he played with great skill and composure. Jayasuriya won the headlines for what was brave and heroic innings, but Maharoof's 23 runs were like gold dust. With due respect for his increasing prowess and responsibility with the bat, Murali's arrival at the crease would have opened up the game for India.
His bowling had been impressive in the first game too, including a peach of a ball that uncorked Virender Sehwag. And today, against the West Indians, he was immaculate, bowling with McGrath-like metronomy. His first ball slid down the leg-side but that was an aberration in an otherwise faultless spell. West Indies batsmen were able to score off only six of his 61 balls as he landed the ball on a good-length with unerring accuracy, drawing the batsmen into no-man's land.
Like McGrath, bowling close to the stumps, he nipped the ball around off the seam both ways. The delivery that Ryan Ramdass chopped on moved back into him, and Xavier Marshall was sent packing by a prefect leg-cutter. Ricardo Powell, normally the most belligerent of strokeplayers, scratched around diffidently before a delivery jagged back through the gate and put him out of his misery. Maharoof may be lacking the pace of a great Test bowler, at the moment, but at 80mph he can still be more than a handy customer in ODI.
In the field, too, he showed some steel, recovering from a humiliating gaff in a space of three balls. Slyvester Joseph flicked lazily at a Dilhara Lokuhettige and Maharoof spilled the simplest of chances at long leg. But a few minutes later, still cursing inside, he grabbed his chance to make amends and sprinted 20 metres to take a brilliant catch diving forward full-length. Others may have fretted in the same circumstances, their confidence still bruised and their nerve evaporating as the ball swirled towards them, but Maharoof gobbled up his opportunity to make amends.
Maharoof's opening partner, Dilhara Lokuhettige, also played his part with another sturdy spell into the wind. Swinging the ball gently away, he prised out two wickets, including Chanderpaul, the prize scalp in a very weak line-up. The jury, though, remains out on Lokuhettige. He has started brightly, blazing an important 20 in the first game and plugging away manfully with the ball. But, at this stage, he looks a bits-and-pieces cricketer: useful but not quite the allround force that Sri Lanka is looking for. However, it is too early to write him off - after all, he has been bowling into a gale force wind.
Maharoof, just 20, was the deserved Man of the Match, although Marvan Atapattu (70) and Kumar Sangakkara (79) had sculptured the winning platform with an astute and patient 138-run partnership in the afternoon. Hopefully, for Sri Lanka's sake, it is the first of many to come, not just with the ball but also with the bat.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent