Australia v Sri Lanka, Super Eights, Grenada April 16, 2007

Sri Lanka hide their cards for bigger hands

Sri Lanka failed to build on the excellent recovery of Mahela Jayawardene and Chamara Silva © AFP

Only an ambush will be able to stop Australia. That's the consensus after a bizarre and deliberately staged mismatch between the team most tipped to win the World Cup and their nearest - yet still distant - challenger. After Stephen Fleming last week managed the pace of New Zealand's defeat against Sri Lanka in a bid to enhance their longevity in the competition, this time it was the Sri Lankans who indulged in a bit of by-play. Knock-out time is nearing, but the pretenders to Australia's title are still wheeling around the favourite, ducking and bobbing and striving for the merest hint of an opening.

Sri Lanka's captain, Mahela Jayawardene, tried to deny that his key bowlers, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, (and the injured Lasith Malinga) had been rested for tactical reasons, but nobody truly believed his protestations. When you set a trap for a beast as big, powerful and terrifying as the Australians, timing is everything. To have sprung a major surprise in a game as meaningless as this encounter had become would have been a criminal waste of their energies.

Forget all the talk of victories building momentum and other such clichéd interpretations. Ricky Ponting's Australians are so crushingly focused that a defeat would have been like a ricochet off a rhino's hide. Australia would have stored up the indignity, redirected their fury, and doubtless entered the semi-finals even more determined to crush all resistance. One look at Ponting's thousand-yard stare tells you that much.

"To tell you the truth it doesn't worry me one little bit," he said, having long since dispensed with the platitudes in press conferences. "They obviously had some you-beaut plan going into the game, to rest a couple of the best players, but that's fine with us. We'll take a comprehensive win against Sri Lanka this close to the finals.

"I don't know their reasons and I don't care. It's out of our control. We put our best team on the park to win the game and we clearly finished on top which is great. If they want to make it through and win the World Cup they are more than likely going to have to play us again at some stage. They've got to bounce back from what we've done to them, but that's for them to worry about, not us."

Sri Lanka will face all sorts of accusations in the coming days of bringing the game into disrepute and of devaluing the World Cup with their tactics. But if the shielding of their star bowlers pays any sort of dividends come the business end of the competition, then hindsight will not only forgive them but thank them as well. Australia, for the eighth match running, learned little of relevance about their opponents, and once again, their former world No. 1 batsman, Michael Hussey, was left to fester in the pavilion. His event has stalled at a mere 50 runs from 72 balls faced.

They managed to get our score pretty easily and our bowlers didn't look that penetrative, but I don't think they bowled particularly well either Mahela Jayawardene

"It must have been a fairly frustrating tournament for him," Ponting said in a statement that contained the only glimmer of compassion he was willing to emit all day. "The top-order guys have done the job, but there is going to be a time in this tournament when Andrew Symonds, Hussey and maybe Brad Hodge are going to have to do some very important batting for us." Sri Lanka are determined that that moment should come in the final in 12 days.

For that to happen, however, they will need to raise their game to levels higher than their second-string managed, and it was a serious concern for Jayawardene that his batsmen folded quite as readily as they did on a fairly blameless pitch. Ponting would have batted first had he won the toss, and so for Sri Lanka to be all out for 226, with a collapse of 5 for 17 undermining their recovery from early setbacks, was not the message that Jayawardene had hoped to send out.

"We know we can compete but we are disappointed with the way we played today," Jayawardene said. "We made a lot of mistakes and when you do that against a quality side they will definitely punish you. Yes, they managed to get our score pretty easily and our bowlers didn't look that penetrative, but I don't think they bowled particularly well either, given the conditions."

A total of 250 might have turned this into a contest, but Nathan Bracken pulled Sri Lanka's strings in an exemplary four-wicket stint, and Shaun Tait bounced back from a scattergun first spell to take two crucial wickets with his out-and-out hostility. "Every game we've tried to make a bit of a statement and we've done it again," Ponting said. "The only team we haven't bowled out is Bangladesh and that was over 22 overs."

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Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo