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April 24, 2007
And so New Zealand declined Dylan Thomas' advice and went gentle into the good night, taking yet another shattered World Cup dream with them. They were helped along by an innings every bit as luminous as the two that Aravinda de Silva conjured in the climactic stages of the 1996 World Cup, and after this emphatic win, few will write off Sri Lanka's chances of emulating the heroes of a decade ago.
Stephen Fleming was not only an astute one-day captain, but one of the few in the game who didn't bother to insult your intelligence with empty platitudes and inanities when a microphone was placed in front of him. His assessment of this semi-final was spot on - "We were outclassed at key moments" - and he and his players need feel no shame in losing to a demonstrably better side.
The final margin of 81 runs should deceive no one. It could have been 150 had Mahela Jayawardene decided to keep Muttiah Muralitharan on instead of giving the ball to less skilled practitioners of the bowling arts. For when it mattered most, Murali, like his captain, had been colossal, scything through the middle in a spell that extinguished any hope of this being a genuine contest. His first two overs went for 14. In his next six, he had 4 for 17. Game over. Bring on Australia, for despite all protestations to the contrary, Sri Lanka have unfinished business there, and no one more so than Murali.
But even Murali and his befuddling armoury couldn't deflect the limelight away from Jayawardene, whose unbeaten 115 will one day be talked of in the same breath as other World Cup gems like Viv Richards' 138, Steve Waugh's 120, Ricky Ponting's 140 and Aravinda de Silva's 66. It's easy to talk or write about pacing an innings, but to witness it being done to such perfection was a revelatory experience.
It was almost as if Jayawardene had gauged the pitch, noted the turn that Jeetan Patel was getting and said: "Right, let's get a score on the board and hand it over to Murali." He almost admitted as much after the game. "I thought 240 would be competitive, but it's a small ground and they have some big hitters," he said. "We lost some wickets, even in the middle of the innings, and I just wanted to try and bat through."
No man can win a game on his own though, and it says much about the quality of Jayawardene's innings that sterling supporting acts from Upul Tharanga, Chamara Silva and Tillakaratne Dilshan will be mentioned merely as afterthoughts. Tharanga chanced his arm now and then, enjoying Dame Fortune's sweet kisses, but it was a hugely impressive innings from a young man whose selection was the subject of much heated debate.
There too, the credit has to go to Jayawardene, who showed the kind of faith that captains had reposed in him when he emerged on the scene as a gifted strokeplayer. "It was a bit of an issue for some people here and back home," Jayawardene said. "But Upul and Sanath [Jayasuriya] have been something special for us. Upul was low in confidence, but we knew that he had the talent and had scored runs against New Zealand before."
Both Silva and Dilshan went to ordinary umpiring decisions, but the 122 runs that they added with Jayawardene took the game beyond New Zealand's grasp. Most impressive was the manner in which they dealt with Shane Bond. Where other teams failed to offer any sort of resistance, Sri Lanka took him on, and it's no coincidence that they were the only side he didn't manage a wicket against, leaving aside that inside-edged gift from Rudi Koertzen.
Sri Lanka's dominance was best expressed by a bugler in one of the stands, who started playing The Last Post when Lasith Malinga was brought back for his second spell. The first had sent shockwaves through the New Zealand dressing room, with Fleming trapped leg before and Ross Taylor playing blind man's buff as delivery after delivery rocketed past the outside edge.
Malinga had missed the last three games, but any doubts about whether he'd be in the groove were soon blown away. "To be honest, no," Jayawardene said with a broad smile when asked whether Malinga's return had been a welcome surprise. "He's got a big heart and he's improved a lot over the past 12 months."
He isn't the only one. Jayawardene has been outstanding in the leadership role since taking over, and after a six-month drought, the tactical acumen is being backed up by weight of runs - 529 in the tournament so far. "I've become mentally much stronger," he said. "The captaincy has helped, and Tom [Moody] has definitely pushed me to the limits. He's not happy when I'm cruising. In fact, he's not happy when anyone's cruising."
He would have been delighted at the cruise today though, a romp that affords Murali, Jayasuriya and Chaminda Vaas a second chance to lay their hands on the game's ultimate prize. With the likes of Murali around, you know for sure that a certain Welsh poet's words will be heeded. Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
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