Sri Lanka aim to finish what West Indies started
Sri Lanka's campaign in the World Twenty20 will be the last to get underway when they play Australia in Nottingham on Monday. The contest is significant because it is Sri Lanka's first international since the players survived the Lahore terror attacks and it's Kumar Sangakkara first game as captain since he took over the leadership from Mahela Jayawardene. The biggest draw of the match, though, is the precarious position Sri Lanka's opponents are in for Australia are a defeat away from becoming the first major side to get knocked out of the competition.
Australia have not been eliminated in the first round of a World Cup since 1992 but their disastrous defeat against West Indies on Saturday has not only left them needing to win at Trent Bridge, they need to beat Sri Lanka soundly to improve on a net run-rate of -2.413. Man to man Australia, who bat Brett Lee at No. 10, have an arsenal that appears more explosive that Sri Lanka's. They started the tournament as one of the favourites to qualify from the group of death but Sangakkara said that being tagged favourites counted for little in this format.
"Things can change very quickly in a little period of the game. A few mistakes here and there, even by a top side, and they will pay. We saw that in a couple of games in the tournament," Sangakkara said. "You can have favourites going into a tournament but during a tournament it changes. It doesn't matter if a team has the top players in the world, on that day you have to be the best side."
Sri Lanka's concern during the build-up to the tournament has been their batting. They chased 151 in a warm-up match against Bangladesh with only two balls to spare and were reduced to 44 for 7 by South Africa. Their attempt to get some outdoor practice at the Lady Bay facility in Nottingham was foiled by the wet weather, forcing them to head for the indoor nets at Loughborough on the eve of the Australia game. Should the rain wash out tomorrow's contest, the teams will share a point, and Sri Lanka could qualify even if they lose to West Indies, as long as it's by a margin smaller than Australia's defeat. Given the uncertainty about the weather, Sangakkara said the key was to be prepared to play at any time in any conditions.
"The rain has played a big part," he said. "We can worry about the rain but any team has to be prepared to play and look forward to playing. As soon as the rain stops, the conditions in England enable the grounds to get up and running very quickly. It's going to be the mental factor, coming to terms with just waiting and being ready to play at anytime."
Despite the chilly and overcast conditions, the early trends have been consistent with those of domestic Twenty20 cricket in England, with the slower bowlers playing a significant role. India deployed the two-spinner strategy with success against Bangladesh at Trent Bridge - the debutant Pragyan Ojha took four wickets - and Sri Lanka will have to make a decision whether to play Ajantha Mendis along with Muttiah Muralitharan. Mendis has the x-factor because, apart from David Hussey, who was Mendis' team-mate during the IPL, none of the other Australian batsmen would have first-hand experience of playing the spinner. They would have had to rely on video-analysis to formulate plans on how to play him.
Mendis, however, was in indifferent form during his last ODI assignment, against India at home, and the IPL, during which he played only four games and took three wickets at 39 apiece. "Ajantha has just got to be a bit more creative in his thinking, more creative in his field placements, and just change the angles of the deliveries he bowls," Sangakkara said. "The novelty is always going to fade the longer you play cricket. He's going to have to change and change very quickly. I'm sure he's going to become a stronger and better bowler for the fact that batsmen are starting to read him better."
Sangakkara played down the motivation Sri Lanka would draw from the opportunity to end Australia's campaign, saying that the team was focused on winning every game, irrespective of the opposition. But who wouldn't want to be remembered for knocking out the Australians, especially in his first game as captain.
George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo