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Sri Lanka v India, Indian Oil Cup Final, Colombo

Sri Lanka's batsmen perform when it matters

The Sri Lankan view by Charlie Austin

August 9, 2005

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Mahela Jayawardene played a perfectly paced innings to guide Sri Lanka to an imposing totlal © Getty Images
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When a journalist asked Tom Moody on the eve of this game about the worrying failure of Sri Lanka's top order to gel as a unit, thus far in the tournament, he replied simply and briefly: "That's what finals are for." And, sure enough, they did, soaking up the pressure and cleverly building a mountainous target, thrilling the 30,000-strong crowd that had crackled with energy and passion from the moment Marvan Atapattu walked out for the toss.

There were some nervy moments along the way, not just for Zaheer Khan who started with an embarrassing bout of the yips, taking five deliveries to bowl his first legitimate ball, but for the Sri Lankan dressing room as they slipped from 37 without loss to 67 for 3. One of those wickets was sacrificial as Sri Lanka, stacked full of lower order batting, gambled on a pinch-hitter, but the crowd were still jittery, afraid that total meltdown was just one ball away.

But Sanath Jayasuriya, with 16 years and 337 caps-worth of experience behind him, played a priceless hand and demonstrated, once again, why he has been such a prolific match-winner for Sri Lanka for so long. His average remains relatively modest, but his ability to score freely during even the tensest of situations has helped Sri Lanka steer out of troubled waters countless times. Jayasuriya has passed 50 on 77 occasions in ODIs and 70% of those matches have ended up being Sri Lanka wins.

So, fresh from the excitement of joining the elite 10,000-run club, with two of the world's best spin bowlers threatening to take a stranglehold of the game after Ashish Nehra's triple-strike, Jayasuriya pressed down the accelerator, sweeping powerfully, to collect three boundaries in an over against Anil Kumble. Immediately, Kumble was forced onto the backfoot and the pressure on Jayasuriya's partner, Mahela Jayawardene, eased. The runs started to tick along with Jayasuriya regularly punching precious fours.

With Jayasuriya flowing, Jayawardene was able to nudge and nurdle, dextrously manoeuvring the ball into the gaps for singles, happy to play second fiddle and build an innings. By the time a huffing and puffing Jayasuriya, who misjudged the speed of Harbhajan Singh's arm, was run out, Jayawardene was safely entrenched. Once again, as he showed in Dambulla in defiance of his critics, he showed himself capable of cleverly constructing a match-winning score under extreme pressure.

Sri Lanka sensibly promoted Russel Arnold after the fall of Jayasuriya, maintaining the left-right combination. Arnold was also ideally suited to the cat-and-mouse middle overs, cleverly and expertly finding spaces. The crowd were starved of boundaries - Jayawardene faced 58 balls before hitting a boundary - but the pair gradually swung the momentum towards Sri Lanka. Then, as the last quarter of the game arrived, they suddenly turned up the throttle.

Their 125-run stand was not a glorious spectacle, although there were some shots to treasure, including an uppercut from Arnold and two deliberate open-faced glides through the slips by Jayawardene. But it was shrewd, workmanlike and skilful. The middle overs are supposed to be a bore, but this was enthralling batting and the crowd did not even threaten a Mexican Wave.

Jayawardene and Jayasuriya grabbed the headlines, but Arnold's crucial role should not go unnoticed. He's the quiet Mr Fix-it of the middle order, going about his business with an honest poker-faced professionalism. For too long he has been consigned to the benches, sacrificed to make room for inferior batters at the top of the order. But while some selectors have been happy to turn a blind-eye to his talents, Sri Lanka's senior players have long been hoping for his return. They understand his value.

India were left facing a towering target. History said it was impossible - no side had successfully chased such a total in the 73 one-dayers played at this venue. But, ominously, the highest successful chase had been India's 271 for 2 against England in 2002, when Virender Sehwag had cut Nasser Hussain's bowlers to smithereens. India needed Sehwag to fire again if they were to win.

Sehwag started like a train, larruping 48 from just 22 balls. His innings left Sri Lanka on the backfoot for the first 35 overs of the innings. But Sri Lanka are the masters of the slow strangle at Premadasa - they have rescued countless matches with fine spin bowling a electric fielding in the final climatic overs. Once more, they held their nerve, waiting patiently for India to slip-up. Finally, Yuvraj Singh obliged and Sri Lanka bulldozed their way back into the game, whipping up panic and forcing India into self-destruct mode to clinch the tournament.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Charlie Austin Sri Lanka editor When Charlie Austin left for Sri Lanka after graduating from Sussex University, he was a planning a winter's cricket in the tropics and a six-month stint with an environmental NGO. His mother's worst fears were soon realised when it became clear that he had fallen in love with the island. Six months have now become eight years and Colombo has become his home. He joined Cricinfo in February 2000 and now heads operations in Sri Lanka, responsible for both sales and editorial. He is also the director of a UK-based travel company called Red Dot Tours, and is currently ghosting Muttiah Muralitharan's autobiography.
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