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February 14, 2006
Sri Lanka pushed Australia hard, showed a new-found feistiness and discovered bright new talent, but their opposition was truly outstanding, proving themselves worthy of their world champion tag. This Australian side is not invincible in ODI cricket, as Sri Lanka showed in Adelaide, but on-song they are a class ahead of the rest.
Sri Lanka did most things well: they won an important toss, their top order played skilfully against tight bowling to hoist a competitive target, their opening bowlers started accurately and built-up some early pressure. But then Adam Gilchrist clicked...again. Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Russel Arnold all batted well but Gilchrist's knock was really special, an exhilarating exhibition of power and skill.
Poor Sanath Jayasuriya, the man that kicked-off Sri Lanka's revival in the VB Series, missed the only chance that Gilchrist offered, a nasty, swirling skier. Jayasuriya never looked comfortable underneath as he desperately tried to gauge the ball's trajectory. Gilchrist breathed deeply and then clicked into that unstoppable gear that can transform a tricky chase into a gentle stroll.
Gilchrist cut loose and Sri Lanka's fate was obvious well before his hundred had been brought-up from just 67 balls, a record on Australian soil. To make matters worse for the tourists, Simon Katich, also became embedded at the crease at the other end, showing remarkable stamina in the exhausting tropical Brisbane heat and humidity, aptly finishing off the series in partnership with Ricky Ponting, who had turned it all around in Sydney.
Australia's bowling without Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath - he was absent in this series of finals - is not terrifying. Brett Lee - astonishingly, wicketless in all three games - is the one gladiator that opponents fear while the others just concentrate on the nuts-and-bolts, remaining naggingly accurate throughout and subtly mixing in variations. Today, once again, Nathan Bracken bowled shrewdly, as did Stuart Clarke, making Sri Lanka sweat for every run.
Sri Lanka, after a shaky start, had done extremely well thanks to the resilience of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. After slumping to 28 for 2, they knew Sri Lanka's only realistic chance rested on their steering the team into a position where their middle order could play with freedom at the death. So they buckled down and didn't push too hard on the accelerator. Eventually, as Sangakkara started to wane, exhausted and possibly unfit, Jayawardene upped the tempo with some sublime and impish strokes.
But the problem with Australia is that you cannot drop your guard for a moment. Every over of an innings is crucial. With fielders like Andrew Symonds, who caught Marvan Atapattu with a slam-dunking Harlem Globetrotter arrogance and then later made a fiendishly difficult catch in the deep look ridiculously easy, they can turn the game at any stage. Today, they turned it in the last five overs, producing some sensational out-cricket that left Sri Lanka 15-20 runs short of what they needed.
As it turned out, with Gilchrist's form so sweet and Katich so bloody-minded, Australia might have chased down a far larger target. They won with 4.3 overs to spare and a heavy-duty middle order waiting in the wings.
Sri Lanka, though, leave Australia with their heads high. Written off on arrival - by their media, fans and cricket board - they stood up for a fight, braving crowd abuse and a mischievous media coverage in addition to one hell of an adversary. They came out second best, but Australia were forced out of cruise-control onto high alert and that is a serious achievement away from their favoured home conditions.
There were some huge positives from a Sri Lanka perspective, too, from the emergence of some exciting young talent - Malinga Bandara and Chamara Kapugedera, in particular - to the professionalism of the players who put to bed the internal frisson precipitated by the selectors just a few weeks before. Contrary to some media reports in Sri Lanka, the team pulled together strongly on the field and grew evermore resilient as a result. Sri Lanka can look forward with renewed optimism for the year ahead.
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