Jayawardene inspires Sri Lanka to the final
Mahela Jayawardene produced an innings of pure class, a rare gem, when it was most needed as Sri Lanka claimed their rightful place in the final of the 2007 World Cup, brushing aside New Zealand, who have reached the semifinals five times and never gone further. The 81-run win was Mahela's baby, but Upul Tharanga played his part, as did Muttiah Muralitharan, who picked up 4 for 31 and spun New Zealand out for only 208.
The progress of Jayawardene's innings was not unlike the shaping of a diamond. It was raw to begin with - carefully negotiated dot-balls, as he reached 17 off 47 balls, and, as the right environment was created slowly but surely, 23 runs came off as many balls; then, as the carbon crystal was almost worth its weight in carats, Jayawardene applied immense heat and pressure, carting 60 off 30 balls; finally, when the stone was done he cut and polished his gem, taking 15 off 5 balls, and left it out there for the world to admire.
Even Stephen Fleming, Jayawardene's opposite number, and a captain known to take on and target his counterparts, was moved enough to walk up and congratulate him immediately after Sri Lanka had ended on 289 for 5. The manner in which he built his innings, never once doubting what was best for himself as batsman or the team as captain, harked back to the mindset of Sri Lanka's World Cup winning captain, Arjuna Ranatunga. But the purity of his strokeplay, oozing class, not one shot played in anger, barely a desperate run scrambled, was reminiscent of that stylist, Aravinda de Silva.
But though Jayawardene was never once in trouble in the course of his innings, and always in control, it was not as though the conditions were perfect for batting. Although there wasn't exaggerated assistance for the bowlers, the ball wasn't exactly coming onto the bat nicely to be driven on the up at will. The fall of first Sanath Jayasuriya - bowled through the gate by James Franklin with the score on 13 - and later Kumar Sangakkara, who chipped Franklin to mid-on with Sri Lanka on 67, and New Zealand sniffed a chance.
Up until then it was Upul Tharanga, under severe pressure for occupying a spot some believed should have gone to Marvan Atapattu, had kept Sri Lanka going. He was scoring fluently, reaching 50 off 51 balls, though without any of the debonair mien of Jayawardene, and built a solid partnership with his captain. A late surge from him, including a sweetly timed six over cover, took him to 73 from 74 balls before he was bowled round his legs, shuffling across his stumps too much, by Daniel Vettori.
In a tournament where the umpiring standards have been uniformly high, a rare error each from the most experienced umpire and the best one, accounted for the final two wickets that fell. Rudi Koertzen gave Chamara Silva out lbw after a thick inside-edge went back onto pad, and Simon Taufel raised the dreaded finger when Tillakaratne Dilshan attempted to sweep one from Jacob Oram that was delivered from wide of the crease and struck the left leg in line with leg stump and would easily have missed another set of stumps.
Yet Jayawardene had kept his end tight, and built partnerships both times - 41 for the fourth wicket and 81 for the fifth - and was around to finish things off in style. A straight six that was gently caressed back over Oram's head, a wristy flick off a full-toss that just eluded Shane Bond at deep backward square-leg and went the distance, and some sizzling late cuts powered Sri Lanka to 289 for 5 from 50 overs. 102 runs had come off the last 10 overs, and with their bowling attack, in these conditions, Sri Lanka needed to play really badly to lose.
Lasith Malinga kept up the tempo with a fiery spell, getting the ball to move away from the right-handed batsmen late at sheer pace. But it was a left-hander who suffered as Fleming was trapped in front of the stumps by one that started outside off and came into him. Ross Taylor, who has harassed by Malinga, was put out of his misery by Chaminda Vaas and Koertzen, adjudged lbw to a ball that would have missed the stumps.
Scott Styris, as he has done all tournament, punched well above his weight, creaming three straight sixes - twice off Dilhara Fernando, who was a mental wreck after being twice warned for running on the danger area in his first over, and once off Muralitharan - but he only managed 37 before popping a simple catch to short midwicket off an innocuous offbreak from Dilshan.
Muralitharan then swooped in, having Oram caught and bowled off a doosra, and then off the very next ball Brendon McCullum brilliantly caught by a diving Silva at short fine-leg, and all of a sudden New Zealand were 114 for 5. Peter Fulton, who had batted well for 46, chipped Jayasuriya to midwicket, Vettori offered his pad to a doosra that was pitched in line and destined for middle stump, and New Zealand were dead and buried at 116 for 7. The rest was mere formality, though a cameo from Franklin towards the end provided some passtime, as Sri Lanka romped into the final of the World Cup.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo