Bandara spins Sri Lanka into the finals
If you'd predicted Sri Lanka would be participating in the forthcoming VB Series finals after their dreadful performances in India and New Zealand, even the most diehard fan might have guffawed. On those tours, Sri Lanka plummeted from No.2 to No.7 in the world ODI ratings, and the chances of a Sri Lanka revival, on foreign soil against two teams that traditionally relish the bouncy, hard pitches of the southern hemisphere, appeared less likely than a sudden Australian outpouring of affection for Muttiah Muralitharan.
But instead of melting away and accepting whipping-boy status, Sri Lanka have produced cricket of sufficient feistiness during the last few weeks to book their right to take on the hosts in a best-of-three shootout.
Sri Lanka have not been at their exuberant best but, sparked into life by a blazing innings from Sanath Jayasuriya in Sydney, they have grown steadily in confidence and have knitted together enough good cricket to squeeze past a battle-weary South Africa team. Several key senior players - Jayasuriya, Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Murali and Vaas - stood up and the younger faces too, especially Malinga Bandara, Ruchira Perera and Nuwan Kulasekera injected an energy and freshness that mixed well into the pot. Sri Lanka were not transformed, but they are looking far healthier than beforehand.
Today's game was a perfect opportunity. South Africa, without Shaun Pollock, were still smarting from their hammering two days ago, their bowlers smashed to all corners by an Australian top-order that has forgotten the fretfulness of their Ashes summer. South Africa, after a long losing tour, appeared mentally drained and ready for their homeward journey. Sri Lanka, to their credit, quickly asserted control and dominated the match for all but the last ten overs of their innings when South Africa gamely clawed their way back into contention, exposing once again Sri Lanka's increasingly worrisome lack of firepower in the lower middle order.
Crucial to Sri Lanka's success was the final, long overdue, return of Marvan Atapattu to the opener's slot. His decision to languish in the middle order, first prompted by low confidence against new ball in India but also justified by the selectors' desire to give young blood an opportunity, left Sri Lanka vulnerable early on. Upul Tharanga, still young and raw, looked out of his depth. Jehan Mubarak looked worse, his batting marked by an inability to manoeuvre the ball and capitalise fully on scoring opportunities in the early Power Plays. When Mubarak reached the boundary he did so with a Russian Roulette attitude, chancing his arm too crudely to survive for long.
When you have a player of Atapattu's technical class and weight of experience it makes little sense to hide him away as a safety net. The top four batsmen have the best chance of scoring a match-winning hundred in one-day cricket and you cannot be shy about your best players populating this prime batting real estate. You need your finishers and unselfish late-innings innovators, of course, but they need a solid base. For the same reasons, the yo-yoing of Jayawardene around the order, mainly during the first few matches, was also a mistake. Thankfully, the lesson was learnt just in time and Sri Lanka will surely revert back to their normal order for the finals.
Sri Lanka might easily have posted a total well in excess of their final 259 for 9, for Atapattu and Sangakkara had positioned them well, on 175 for 1, around the 35-over mark. But considering the jumpy running between the wickets throughout and a near-freefall at the death, their total might also have been much less and at the midway point they at least had runs on the board. The Sri Lankans are a far more comfortable side defending, especially on slightly two-paced pitches like this. South Africa were the team under pressure.
As has been the case for so long, Vaas conjured up the all-important early breakthrough, swerving in an inswinger to send Boeta Dippenaar, South Africa's in-form opener, on his way. Then he plucked a fine reflex catch from a cleverly disguised slower ball. His miserly spell left South Africa on the rack. Perera, feeling his way back after injury, was not at his best but Dilhara Fernando also played a crucial hand, toppling Mark Boucher's stumps. This provided the perfect platform for Murali and Bandara to twirl their magic, which their did magnificently, strangling the innings and wrapping up their triumph.
The selectors - rightly - have taken a fearful pounding during recent weeks. Some of their decision-making has beggared belief, handicapping the team and creating unnecessary internal tensions. However, there have also been some inspired picks and none more so that Bandara's elevation ahead of Upul Chandana. Considering Chandana's excellent record in the recent past, it was a very difficult decision to have made. But Bandara has justified his place with some gutsy and skilful displays throughout the tournament, his confidence visibly growing with each game. His legspin has been accurate, thoughtful and as deceptive as the toothpaste smile that suggests innocence but hides a steely interior.
Bandara, the Man of the Match today, has been Sri Lanka's find of the tournament. Perera has showed a fire in his belly that Sri Lanka badly needs, Chamara Kapugedera looks a natural athlete and a man undaunted by the big stage, and Nuwan Kulasekera's return after a stress fracture has also been encouraging. Bandara, though, has shown more and showed that he is a man for the future, a potential and much-needed longterm partner for Muralitharan. It is hoped that the selectors now invest heavily in his potential, allowing him to grow slowly into a truly world-class act.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent