Australia ease to five-wicket victory
Australia showed they could survive without their resting captain as a Simon Katich half-century and crucial middle-order contributions steered them to a victory that gave them a five-point lead at the top of the VB Series table. The team had a strange look with Ricky Ponting relaxing on the Australia-Day holiday, and Adam Gilchrist assumed the captaincy, keeping and opening roles in a batting order containing a handful of batsmen under pressure. However, Australia overcame the regular dangers to conquer a tricky and slow pitch and achieve a familiar result.
Restricting Sri Lanka to 8 for 218, Australia were made to work hard over the first 30 overs of their chase before they gradually eased away during a 60-run partnership between Andrew Symonds and Damien Martyn. But just as safety appeared, Muttiah Muralitharan conjured a crucial double blow to remove Symonds and Martyn and drop Australia to 5 for 177.
The successes sparked a flurry of close-in catchers and rejected appeals, but Michael Clarke (16 off 18 balls) and Michael Hussey (26 off 30) erased the flutters of a tight finish and secured the four points with nine balls and five wickets to spare. "It's always tense till you get that last run," Hussey said. "We were certainly nervous out there," Clarke added, "but we played well."
Martyn, who is still finding his international rhythm after recovering from a finger injury, calmly pushed, caressed and reverse-swept his way to 46 until he was bowled by a superb Muralitharan offspinner. The dismissal came two balls after Symonds's top-edged sweep returned Australia's worries. It was a tough win for an unsettled side in the middle of a major competition.
Knowing his New South Wales team-mate Phil Jaques is piling up runs, Katich's spot at the top of the order is shaky and it looked under greater threat when he scratched to 14 from 42 deliveries. However, the time was spent wisely adapting to the pitch and he broke free with three boundaries in one over to ease his situation and finished with the match's only half-century. His 89-ball 52 included five fours and added to the platform provided by Gilchrist's brisk 34 after returning refreshed from two games off.
Nuwan Kulasekara provided the initial problems in a smart opening spell of 2 for 18 from seven overs, but Australia were able to pick easy, early runs from Akalanka Ganegama, who spilled 41 in his first six. Sri Lanka did not offer many other donations and Brad Hodge, replacing Ponting at No. 3, had a short and frustrating stay for 5.
It was a difficult game for batting, especially when the faster bowlers reduced their pace and cut the ball, but Gilchrist deserved to be pleased with his team's effort in the field. Brad Hogg and Nathan Bracken used the surface well as Sri Lanka desperately missed a shove from Sanath Jayasuriya, who was absent due to a thigh injury.
In conditions hovering around 40C, Hogg spun the ball regularly and bowled Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan to collect 2 for 35, and Bracken, working mostly around the wicket in the middle overs, twice forced Mahela Jayawardene and Marvan Atapattu to chip easy catches as Sri Lanka lost 3 for 11 to slip to 6 for 167. The tourists relied on Russel Arnold's scurrying 27 not out to push them home as Symonds picked up two late wickets and figures of 3 for 48. He bowled mostly offspin and his all-round contributions won him the Man-of-the-Match award.
Brett Lee started the match with a wide and with Jayasuriya in the dressing room Sri Lanka took too long to get going after tight spells from Australia's openers. The score was only 16 from eight overs and while the tempo improved it failed to reach the standards required for a hefty total, and none of the batsmen beat the opener Jehan Mubarak's 34.
The home players had similar difficulties in finding fluency and making lasting impressions, but their experience of close contests sealed the match. In the end it was Australia's day.
Adam Gilchrist c Ganegame b Kulasekara 34 (1 for 47)
Planted a drive straight to mid-off
Brad Hodge b Kulasekara 5 (2 for 73)
Ball darted in and between bat and pad
Simon Katich c Sangakkara b Dilshan 52 (3 for 115)
Cut at ball but seemed to miss it; Snicko reported fine nick
Andrew Symonds c Tharanga b Muralitharan 32 (4 for 175)
Top-edged a sweep and taken at deep midwicket
Damien Martyn b Muralitharan 46 (5 for 177)
Big offbreak turned through the gate
Jehan Mubarak c Lee b Symonds 34 (1 for 53)
Drove straight to mid-off
Upul Tharanga c Martyn b McGrath 31 (2 for 96)
Mistimed pull shot lobbed to midwicket
Kumar Sangakkara b Hogg 25 (3 for 100)
Squirted inside edge somehow found its way around his pads and to the stumps
Marvan Atapattu c Martyn b Bracken 32 (4 for 155)
Limp flick to midwicket
Mahela Jayawardene c Symonds b Bracken 25 (5 for 161)
Drove away from his body to cover
Tillakaratne Dilshan b Hogg 1 (6 for 167)
Spinning ball clipped pad, glove and back leg
Chaminda Vass c Hogg b Symonds 15 (7 for 196)
Hit full toss to deep midwicket
Akalanka Ganegame b Symonds 7 (8 for 207)
Missed trying to slog
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo