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April 15, 2007
Monday's match in Grenada features the two teams that most observers agree are best-equipped to win the World Cup - Australia, the runaway favourites, and Sri Lanka, the romantics' choice, whose thrilling and expansive brand of cricket has made them not only the most watchable side in the competition, but also one of the most dangerous. Given the likely shake-down of the semi-final places, this game could conceivably be a dress rehearsal for the World Cup final in Barbados on April 28.
It's unlikely, however, that too much will be read into the result of this contest. Australia start favourites, inevitably, for they are arguably the most driven squad ever to take part in a World Cup and will be gunning for their eighth straight victory of the competition, and their 24th in 25 since the 1999 World Cup. For Sri Lanka - emboldening though a win would be - the temptation is to allow that to happen, and keep their cards held very firmly to their chests.
"There are certain tactical things we'll consider going into the match," Tom Moody, the Sri Lanka coach, said. One of those will be the absence of Lasith Malinga, whose fiery and unorthodox slingshots are his team's ultimate trump card. He is still recovering from a torn left ankle ligament and was rated by Moody as "90% sure" to miss the match. Given his importance, that seemed a conservative estimate.
"We are aware he's not quite right and we don't want to worsen the situation," Moody said. "We'd rather get on top of it completely before we let him loose again. He'll definitely be playing, going forward, but probably Monday is a day or two too early." Malinga did feature in Sri Lanka's net session, bowling off a shortened run for 15 minutes, but seeing as the Australian batsmen have never faced him in a one-day international, a dead-rubber contest is hardly the moment to unveil him.
Though Ricky Ponting would hardly see it as an issue, Australia's only cause of concern in this tournament is the lack of competition they have so far encountered. They've played seven matches to date and no side has come closer than South Africa's 83-run defeat in Basseterre. Their last encounter against Ireland in Barbados on Friday was all over by the lunch break.
"This will be the biggest test for us so far - at least, on paper," Ponting said. "We're ready for a good, hard, honest contest, but we've had a few games that have looked that way through the tournament.
"The South Africa game was one we thought would be a great game, and we managed to play some great cricket and turned it into one that wasn't as close as everyone might have expected. The West Indies game was probably the same - and our closest game so far was probably against England.
"These conditions here will probably suit Sri Lanka right down to the ground, so we know we'll have to be at our best to compete." Australia enjoyed themselves on a pacier pitch in Barbados, but have yet to encounter the slower, lower conditions that prevailed during Saturday's low-scoring encounter between New Zealand and South Africa.
Sri Lanka will go into this match as underdogs, but they are a team confident in their own abilities and unfazed by the challenge of their remaining contests. "It would be great to win and continue momentum, but it's important to continue our own brand of cricket," Moody said. "We mustn't try to chase Australia's style. They play a unique style that has been successful and is admired by all the cricketing world, but we'll concentrate on our style."
Whether all facets of that style are on display on Monday is a moot point. The two sides haven't met since Sri Lanka took Australia to three matches in the finals of the VB Series in February last year, and it's hard to imagine that Muttiah Muralitharan, for instance, will be reminding Australia of all the weapons in his armoury. "We need to try to make sure we don't lose those wickets against the new ball," Ponting said, "so that we've got them in hand for that middle part of the game when they'll probably try to slow things down with their spinners."
Australia will once again be without Shane Watson, who is still recuperating from his calf injury. "He ran yesterday at about 70% and is moving very freely in the nets, so he's on track for things as planned, which was to come back for New Zealand," Ponting said. "We'll monitor him pretty closely in all the training."