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Sri Lankans represent a different challenge for Australia

In a summer which has proven to be pretty uneventful and one-sided, the arrival of Sri Lanka to the fray is much anticipated.

With them, Sri Lanka bring the hope to Australian cricket fans desperate to watch some competitive cricket. The Test matches were nothing but a mere formality with England's wretched luck with injuries the final nail in the coffin.

Fans still avidly reminisce about the time, seven years ago, the Sri Lankans took it up to the Australians and nearly came away with the one-day crown. Not polished enough to go the whole way, the Sri Lankans were better for the experience and came through with victory in the 1996 World Cup final.

Australians love nothing better than watching a competitor give their all and take up the fight which is exactly what the Sri Lankans did to their more fancied opponents.

The Australians should have been aware that the Sri Lankans were no easybeats after they had met at the SCG. Sri Lanka batted first and made 9/255. In reply, Australia won by five wickets and with two balls remaining. In the process, posting the highest ever successful run chase at the SCG.

Australia's next game was back at the SCG against the West Indies where Michael Bevan hit the final ball of the match for four to give victory to Australia by one wicket.

Controversy was plaguing the Sri Lankans and their tour after Darrell Hair had no-balled Muttiah Muralidaran in the Boxing Day Test match. When Ross Emerson called Murali for throwing at the Gabba in a one-day game, things were threatening to get out of control.

No one quite knew what to make of the whole affair. It was overshadowing the cricket and proving to be quite a distraction.

Sri Lanka met Australia at the MCG. Australia won the toss and elected to bat first. After tottering at 3/33 and 4/54, Australia recovered to be 5/213. Ricky Ponting was superb in compiling 123 and Michael Bevan was continuing his amazing summer with an unbeaten 65. Up to that time, he had batted six times and only been dismissed once.

The Sri Lankan reply was audacious. Their pocket-rocket wicket-keeper, Romesh Kaluwitharana had gone crazy and was smashing the Australian bowlers to every corner of the MCG. The decision to promote him up the order was a masterstroke. Beforehand, he was only averaging 11 for his limited-overs career. A few late wickets from Craig McDermott and Shane Warne caused a tremor but Sri Lanka made it home with three wickets and 15 balls to spare.

Sri Lanka stayed alive by defeating the West Indians at the WACA and to qualify for the finals, they would have to defeat Australia again at the MCG.

At this stage, there was no secret that there was a little bit of bad blood simmering between the two sides. The fans loved it as it made the contest, that little bit more exhilarating.

Australia batted similarly for 4/242 as they had the previous game against Sri Lanka at the MCG. Steve Waugh's maiden limited overs century was the highlight. The element of surprise was gone and Australia was expecting an avalanche but it didn't help. Kaluwitharana was savage on everything and anything. His 74 from 69 was a real treat to watcth and it took a screamer from Mark Waugh to remove him.

Sri Lanka looked trouble but a late rally by Kumara Dharmasena and Chaminda Vaas saw them home.

Glenn McGrath was carted for 76 runs from his 9.4 overs - the most ever by an Australian bowler.

Sri Lanka had done well in chasing two targets set by Australia. Australia has only ever lost eight times at the MCG when defending a score under lights. These accounted for two of them.

Two days later the first final was played at the MCG and the simmering had now turned to boiling. Whether it was the underdog element or the fact that the Sri Lankans had been hard done by the officials, or a combination of both but the was a lot of crowd support for the Sri Lankans.

Their trick was to chase and so Arjuna Ranatunga sent Australia in. The plan was working with Australia 4/39 after 15 overs. Half centuries from Ponting, Bevan and Ian Healy took Australia to 7/201 from their 50 overs.

This time McGrath pitched the ball up and he had 'Kalu' plumb in front for 13. The Sri Lankans rallied to 2/107 before collapsing. Inexperience, and being overawed, cost the Sri Lankans in a game they should have won considering they had only recently chased two bigger scores.

Several controversial umpiring decisions went Australia's way with the match played in a powder keg atmosphere where anything could set it off.

The second final in Sydney was an anti-climax to what had been a great summer of cricket. Rain bucketed down forcing Sri Lanka to chase 168 from 25 overs. The game was getting out of control. McGrath and Sanath Jayasuriya collided mid pitch. The Australians refused Ranatunga's request for a runner and Roshan Mahanama and Ian Healy exchanged terse words.

With five overs remaining, Sri Lanka needed 33 and had four wickets in hand but the crumbled to fall short by just nine runs.

Infamously afterwards, the two teams refused to shake hands.

Due to security concerns, Australia would forfeit their World Cup games to be played in Sri Lanka. The two met in the final and this time, the Sri Lankans had the better of the Australians.

Sadly, after producing such enthralling and entertaining cricket, contests between the two teams have been few and far between since then. They have played just 11 times with Australia having the edge 6-5.

Sri Lanka came back to Australia for the 1998/99 limited overs series but they didn't have the same spark. Hopefully this time, the cricket will be as entertaining and provide as much of a spectacle as it did then.

Many of the protagonists of six years ago such as Mark Taylor, Healy, McDermott, the Waughs, Stuart Law, Ranatunga, Kaluwitharana, Mahanama, Asanka Gurusinha and Dharmasena have gone but Ponting, Warne, McGrath, Aravinda De Silva, Hashan Tillakaratne, Vaas and 'Murali' all remain.

De Silva is making his sixth trip to Australia. Australian fans will relish the opportunity to have one final chance to farewell this class batsman.

Seven years ago, the Sri Lankans revolutionised one-day cricket. Their approach to the first 15 overs won them the 1996 World Cup even if ironically, it spectacularly failed in both the semi-final and final.

This time, the Australians have the trump card in Adam Gilchrist. If the Sri Lankans fail to neutralise him, they will be in grave danger.

Darren Lehmann brings a lot of experience to the middle-order while Matthew Hayden and Damian Martyn are capable of anything.

Whether the Sri Lankans can match the brash daring cricket of their counterparts of seven years ago remains to be seen, either way their exciting brand of cricket will captivate cricket fans across Australia. Not overawed like the South Africans, more technically correct than the West Indians and more aggressive than the English, their hybrid style of playing is attractive to watch.

Australia the nation is moving on from its strong colonial ties and forging stronger relationships within its own region. Maybe too with the Australian side, it's time to devote less impetus to old rivalries and begin consolidating new ones.