Firing on all cylinders
Australians, like boxers bored of one-round knockouts, always claim to like a fight and now they have one. Fears that Sri Lanka were just making up the numbers in the VB Series finals, providing fodder for a greedy top order and target practice for Brett Lee's thunderbolts, were cast aside by an electric allround display built upon intelligent batting, disciplined bowling and scintillating fielding. Sri Lanka's dressing room has experienced a whole gamut of emotions during recent months, but they now leave for Sydney, their favourite ground in Australia, with their confidence sky-high and a chance for their first-ever tri-series triumph on Australian soil.
Sri Lanka knew they had an opportunity at Adelaide on dry pitch that was likely to offer assistance to the spinners, but they also had accepted that victory over the world champions necessitated the 'perfect game'. As one senior player remarked on the eve of the game: "You might beat South Africa at 90% but winning against this Australia team requires everyone to be firing at their very best". Sri Lanka managed just that: the top order intelligently laid the foundations, quickly assessing the 250-mark as a target; the lower middle order, a weakpoint thus far in the tournament, provided some late-innings fireworks; the new ball bowlers keep a lid on during the Powerplays; the fielders, especially Tillakaratne Dilshan, were brilliant; and the spin twins, Muttiah Muralitharan and Malinga Bandara, finished it all off with 4 for 91 in 20 skillful overs. This was the finest Sri Lankan performance in a long time.
The Man of the Match was Kumar Sangakkara, his 83 testimony not only to his obvious and now well-acknowledged talent, but to his street-smart cricketing brain. As an entertainer and competitor his natural inclination is to dominate, to assert primordial control and make the opposition know it. But today he nudged and nurdled and ticked the innings along, soaking up pressure and shouldering responsibility. He quickly realised and accepted that trying to break free by peppering the boundary hoardings would be too high-risk a strategy against an Australian bowling outfit that actually did little wrong. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves for some honest blue-collar hardwork.
The batting revelation, though, was Chamara Kapugedera, an 18-year-old with only a handful of first-class games under his belt. He might have been starring in the Under-19 World Cup back in Colombo but to the credit of Sri Lanka's selectors, and the team management that picked him today, they threw him in at the deep end. Once again, he appeared unfazed and utterly at home. Any teenager who can saunter down the pitch and loft Andrew Symonds, the grizzly dreadlocked epitome of Aussie bravado, straight for six has got spunk. As Richie Benaud observed dryly with his usual perfect timing: "Hmmm...there is no fear there". And nothing could be more precious than fearlessness for an aspiring international cricketer; it's what sets cricketers apart. Fortunately, he has skill too, as his crucial 38 from 21 balls showed.
Kapugedera's fireworks in the final five overs of the innings, helped by Dilshan's hustling, lifted Sri Lanka from a moderate, possibly par, total to a commanding one. Suddenly, Australia, who would have felt in control up until the 45th over, realised it was game on.
The next crucial match-turning phase of the game was the Dilshan Show, a remarkable quadruple of run outs that ripped out the rump of Australia's top order. Australia's running between the wickets, normally so exemplary, deteriorated into a shambles of miscommunication and mistrust. Dilshan pounced on each mistake, keeping his head to run-out Ricky Ponting by pitch-length, throwing down the stumps in one lithe swing to send back Damien Martyn, diving and throwing with pinpoint accuracy to remove Simon Katich and then underarming Mike Hussey out after a dazed call for a quick single by Michael Clarke.
Sri Lanka's fielding was lousy in India but clearly the hardwork of the team under the guidance of Trevor Penney, the assistant coach, is starting to bear fruit. His appointment was not greeted with universal glee in Sri Lanka because some pundits felt local contenders were considered more worthy. But if Sri Lanka's fielding can continue to improve such critics, although rightly concerned about the development of local coaches, will be silenced. For that matter, the Tom Moody-bashers back home who resent his high salary and cannot see the much-improved preparation and planning behind the scenes, may now be pausing for thought.
Sri Lanka, of course, are still far from the finishing line. Australia, despite their blunder-ridden run chase, finished only 21 runs adrift. They will surely come back stronger and raise their game in Sydney. But they will also be wary. Sri Lanka are a confidence-driven side. They lost their Mojo in India and New Zealand but they have reclaimed it emphatically. They now have the self-belief again to take on the best. They will not be scared of Sydney's spin-friendly conditions and they also have a wonderful incentive to win 2-0 because, courtesy of the board's planners, who clearly didn't rate Sri Lanka's chances very highly, this will give them a luxurious three-day break. A three-match final on the other hand leaves the team with only a handful of hours in Colombo next week to re-pack their bags before leaving for Bangladesh.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent