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April 12, 2007
This was the heavyweight contest that wasn't. Ahead of their Super Eights showdown in Grenada, Sri Lanka and New Zealand had been billed as two of the most versatile and power-packed sides in the World Cup; by the dying stages of this bout, however, the Kiwis were visibly pulling their punches. With Shane Bond neutered like a telegraphed right hook, and their batting dizzied by the speed and variety of the Sri Lankan assault, Stephen Fleming was forced to give up any ambitions of a knockout, and play instead for points - specifically net run-rate points, on which their qualification just might be forced to rest.
Today's defeat was an unsettling experience for the Kiwis, whose progress so far in this tournament has been serene to say the least. A favourable draw had gifted them the chance for four consecutive wins against the weakest opponents on display, and each had been accepted with alacrity.
Today, however, they found Sri Lanka's demands to be far stiffer than anything that England, West Indies, Bangladesh or Ireland had come up with, and Fleming's decision to delay his final Powerplay until the absolute last minute was proof of the concern within his camp. Victory over South Africa and Australia cannot be taken as read, and therefore neither can an automatic semi-final slot.
"We are nervous about every game, especially these three," Fleming said. "These are three of the supposedly top sides in the world. We hadn't been put under the pump thus far - and we didn't respond that well this time. We have 24 hours to put it right, but we want an improvement in performance, that's for sure. One of the traits of this team is that it is able to rebound pretty well.
"It's part of the business end of the World Cup to have these matches. But we can play a hell of a lot better than we played today. It was a poor performance. It was just a day when we couldn't get anything going. The whole way through, particularly with our batting, they just stunted any momentum we had. Sri Lanka probably have one of the best attacks in the World Cup."
The 5519 spectators who came along to Grenada's national stadium might initially have anticipated a feisty match-up between two of the most explosive fast bowlers in the world. In the event, however, both Lasith Malinga and Bond went wicketless - one missed the game through injury; the other was seen off with minimal fuss by two canny batsmen, Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara, for whom a target of 220 was never going to be enough. And when the dust had settled on a defeat more one-sided than the eventual six-wicket margin suggests, that fact will be of far more concern to New Zealand than Sri Lanka.
"We are not a one-man team," Mahela Jayawardene said. It was a statement that verged towards the bleeding obvious when one considers that three of today's star performers - Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan - were key members of the team that won the World Cup in 1996. "For the last 12-16 months we have played as a team and tried to adapt to whatever combination we play. That has been very successful for us, and that's how we play our cricket.
Jayawardene tacitly implied that New Zealand's much-vaunted bowling versatility wasn't a patch on his own team's resources. "Chasing 220, the plan was that they had two quality bowlers in Shane and Dan [Vettori], so we made sure we didn't give them early wickets," he said. "Our guys batted sensibly - Sanath and Kumar made a very good partnership, which is good when you're chasing runs. Overall we batted really well, fielded really well and had a really good game. This was a big day for us."
All eyes now turn towards the Super Eights points table, which suddenly looks a little alarming for New Zealand. They have surrendered their top spot and with it half a point on NRR, and if South Africa turn them over on Saturday but lose to England two days later, qualification could come down to the very last round of matches. Given the form and focus that Ricky Ponting's men have shown since their beating in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy, they might just have to hope that Brian Lara does them a favour in his one-day swansong, and puts paid to England's hopes of stealing fourth spot.
"You're dumb if you're not [worried about net run-rate]," Fleming said as he explained his tactics in Sri Lanka's inexorable march to victory - delaying the final Powerplay and persisting with the niggardly combination of spin and medium-pace instead of recalling Shane Bond for a final throw of the dice. "We thought one wicket with 50 runs to get we could push really hard - but we didn't get it.
"You've got to be careful about throwing a game away and letting your run-rate plummet too much. It was by no means giving the game up, but as a captain you have to look at all these scenarios. I had to try to create pressure to give us the best chance of winning this game, and not hurting us too much if we don't."
Jayawardene, by contrast, had no such concerns. Sri Lanka's own run-rate slipped in spite of victory because the margin did not match their previous thrashings of Bangladesh and West Indies, but two points in the bag was his imperative. "We've had our one hiccup against South Africa," he said, "so it was vital we won this game as we did."
Even so, the fixture list is looking much more favourable for Sri Lanka. Australia loom large on Monday, of course, but Ireland await as an insurance policy. This victory, achieved without even a wistful glance towards the injured Malinga, was both comprehensive and foreboding. Sri Lanka may lack the outright menace that the Australians have brought to their contests so far, but no-one comes close in terms of sheer versatility. Today, New Zealand were made to look like one of their bits-and-pieces outfits of yesteryear. And that's not something that even the Aussies have managed to do of late.