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February 12, 2006
The response was emphatic, ruthless, and almost gruesome. Left pink-faced following their panic-stricken display on Friday night at Adelaide, staring at the possibility of their first VB Series defeat in the finals since 1993 and having slumped to 10 for 3 before thousands had even passed through the turnstiles, Australia produced one of the great batting recoveries and, statistically, their finest one-day batting display. They crushed Sri Lanka and reclaimed a psychological superiority prior to the deciding game at the Gabba on Tuesday.
When Sri Lanka pore over the debris of the defeat to find out just what went wrong, they may identify some bowling changes from Marvan Atapattu that backfired, a fumbled catch by Russel Arnold, some shabby ground fielding and a few wayward deliveries early on. But the truth is that Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds were irresistibly brilliant, the pair responding to a grave crisis with an aggressive batting exhibition that left gaping mouths all round. Sri Lanka would be better served appreciating the sheer quality of the batsmanship than wallowing in depression.
The excellence of the batting is perhaps best highlighted by the remarkable punishment handed out to Muttiah Muralitharan, the finest spinner in one-day cricket at the moment and the most miserly bowler in the entire history of the limited-overs game. Muralitharan - who only conceded more than 60 runs on five previous occasions in 269 matches (his previous worst figures were his 2 for 73 against Pakistan back in 1996-97 at the Gymkhana Club in Nairobi, a postage stamp-sized venue) - was pummelled for an astonishing 99 runs in 10 overs, the most expensive figures in history for a bowler that has completed his full quota of overs.
Sri Lanka were never going to chase down a target of 369 and Phillip Pope, Cricket Australia's Public Affairs Manager, was so confident of victory that he announced Australia's travel details for Brisbane to the world's media midway through the second innings. Arnold and Mahela Jayawardene showed some fight with attacking fifties but it was a hopeless cause once Ponting and Symonds had clicked into full gear.
Earlier, the Sri Lankans were seething over Ponting's refusal to accept Jayawardene's claim that he'd caught the Australian captain, on 57 at the time, at backward point. Ponting has been at a forefront of a campaign to persuade other Test nations to accept the advice of the fieldsman over contested bump catches, one area where television has proved itself a poor judge. But here he stood his ground defiantly, deciding not to consult with Jayawardene, who along with the close fielders around the bat were convinced the catch was clean. In the event, a few overs later, the Sri Lanka team management conveyed a message onto the field that they felt the catch was inconclusive and Jayawardene apologised to Ponting.
But at the time, the incident rankled the Sri Lankans, allowing Australia to tighten their grip. Atapattu, normally unflappable and cool-tempered, flashed heatedly with Peter Parker, the umpire who after consultation with his colleague Mark Benson, decided not to refer the decision upstairs. As it was, the replays were inconclusive - some pundits insisted the catch was clean, Jayawardene's fingers sliding under the ball in the nick of time, while others were convinced that it had bounced in front. Even if was referred, as is so often the case, the television umpire would have probably been forced to give the batsman the benefit of doubt.
Thereafter, the wheels slowly came off for Sri Lanka, their out-fielding losing the sharpness and sureness of last Friday and their bowlers becoming ever more exasperated, especially poor Murali, who was shaking his head in utter disbelief by the end. A towering score was stacked with a sense of inevitability and it all ended with a murderous grand finale as Symonds, Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey plundered 133 from the final 10 overs. Sydney was supposed to suit Sri Lanka's spinners but in the end it was only Chaminda Vaas with the new ball that created problems during a superb three-wicket burst. His first-over dismissal of Adam Gilchrist was a classic, an opening slower ball followed by a wider, faster, short-of-a-length delivery that was skewed into the gully. When Simon Katich was defeated by an inswinger and Jayawardene flung himself to his right to cling onto a sharp slip catch off Damien Martyn, Sri Lanka's elation was unbridled.
But Australia had learnt their lesson from Adelaide when the succession of early run-outs caused panic. Here Ponting and Symonds wore deadpan expressions and backed themselves to repair the damage. Within minutes Ponting launched the counterattack with a pulled six off Ruchira Perera and soon he was creating a major headache for Atapattu as he targeted Nuwan Kulasekera, the most inexperienced of Sri Lanka's seamers. Sri Lanka were forced to chop and change the bowling within the Powerplays and introduce spin far earlier than planned. The momentum quickly swung decisively towards Australia.
Sri Lanka now face a mountainous task in Brisbane where conditions in theory will favour the Australians more than Sri Lanka - a fact that Ponting was only too pleased to highlight during his after-match interview, hoping no doubt to plant another seed of doubt. In addition, the mauling handed out today will have badly bruised the confidence of their bowlers. However, Sri Lanka, as they showed on Friday, revel in the underdog tag and, in addition, the extra spice created by the Ponting bump-ball incident should also provide useful fuel. It could be a rousing end to a gripping best-of-three final.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondentFeeds: Charlie Austin
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