Australia cruise past under-strength Sri Lanka
A couple of Sri Lanka batting collapses turned a potentially cracking contest into a one-sided affair, as Australia wrapped up a comprehensive seven-wicket win. The move to rest Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan weakened Sri Lanka's bowling but it was the unchanged batting line up that faltered on a true surface in Grenada.
Australia were clinical, seizing the openings without fail and stamping their authority when it counted. They lost the toss but made full use of the early swing before witnessing a well-crafted 140-run stand between Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Silva for the fourth wicket. Nathan Bracken gave little away, ending with 4 for 19 from 9.4 overs, and received good support from Glenn McGrath and Brad Hogg. With the stage set, Australia's batsmen thrived as Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds sealed the contest with emphatic half-centuries.
Sri Lanka's batting has followed a familiar pattern in this tournament: top-order fumble followed by revival followed by late-order stumble. At least two batsmen have managed to pass 50 in every match, yet rarely has there been a powerful all-round effort. Against South Africa, they slid from 195 for 5 to 209 all out and it cost them. Against England they slipped from 175 for 3 to 235 all out and it so nearly cost them. Today, the decline was from 167 for 3 in the 38th over to 226, a collapse that effectively ended the contest.
The fine partnership between Jayawardene and Silva was lost in a rash of poor strokes by the rest. On a good batting track, with the Australian spinners unable to extract much purchase, they stabilised the innings. They had little trouble in rotating the strike and kept the rate close to four an over at the 30-over mark.
But with their dismissals, both to Hogg's wrist spin within two overs, Sri Lanka lost their way. Between the 40th and 45th overs they could muster just 13 runs for the loss of three more wickets. The slump that followed was never really arrested and it was only thanks to a 34-run stand between Farveez Maharoof and Malinga Bandara, in the side for Murali, that lifted them past 200.
Bracken led the bowling effort with an outstanding spell. He removed both the left-handed openers early, one with an away-swinger and another with a ball that jagged back in, before returning towards the end to stifle the lower order. Sanath Jayasuriya couldn't counter a Bracken in-dipper. Replays suggested the ball might have been a tad high but Bracken must be complimented for keeping a tight line. He delivered a peach of a delivery soon after, inducing an edge off Upul Tharanga that flew straight to first slip. Ponting started to go for the catch but stopped just in time for Matthew Hayden, at first slip, to pouch a controlled take.
Hayden set the tone for the chase, using his feet against the medium-pacers and biffing them over cover and midwicket. A pace attack comprising Dilhara Fernando, Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara made an honest attempt to keep things tight, and even forced an airy waft from Adam Gilchrist early on, which was dropped by Russel Arnold at short extra cover. However, they couldn't sustain the pressure and Hayden's 41 contained five fours and two big sixes while Gilchrist was a bit more circumspect during his 49-ball 30.
Arnold made amends with the ball, snaffling both openers in quick succession, forcing Hayden to under-edge before trapping Gilchrist lbw. Ponting, though, controlled the rest of the innings and didn't have much to worry about once Symonds began imposing himself. Ponting's was a finely constructed innings, angling the spinners behind the wicket and nudging the singles.
His sensible partnership with Michael Clarke, with both using their feet confidently, allowed them to shrug off the loss of the openers. Symonds arrived with 101 needed and crashed five fours and two sixes in his power-packed 63. None of the Sri Lankan bowlers was allowed to settle and even the half-chances (close run-outs and stumpings) didn't go their way. Ponting eased to his fourth 50-plus score of the tournament and finished it off with a lofted straight six, a record 29th in World Cups. The stamp of authority that the shot carried told the story of the day.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan assistant editor of Cricinfo