Sri Lanka ahead by a nose
Friday June 19
Start time 1730 local (1630 GMT)
The Oval is shaping up as West Indies' lucky ground. In years gone by, it was the team's natural home-from-home, a place where the expat communities of Brixton and Lambeth could flood into the stands and watch the likes of Viv Richards and Michael Holding make England grovel. In more recent times, the venue has produced sharp spikes of achievement to atone for the team's general malaise, and the manner in which they dispatched England on Monday bore uncanny similarities to their twilight triumph over the same team and on the same ground in the 2004 Champions Trophy.
After that victory in a frenzied nine-over run-chase, Chris Gayle said he hoped his team would return here for their semi-final, regardless of their opponents. He has got his wish. After a tour in which West Indies did not record a single victory in any form of the game until their Twenty20 preparations got underway at the beginning of the month, they are now just two wins away from a turnaround so stunning it begs the question, was their early-tour apathy just a ploy? If so, they've caught their rivals superbly unawares so far.
Sri Lanka, however, will have no reason to fear any West Indian renaissance. No matter how brutal the blade of Chris Gayle, or how audacious Dwayne Bravo's shot selection, Sri Lanka have demonstrated time and again in this tournament that they have a player for all occasions. South Africa's unbeaten record is the one that has caught the eye for its efficiency but Sri Lanka are also unbeaten in five games out of five, with their only minor scare coming in a spirited display from the Irish.
In Tillakaratne Dilshan they have produced arguably the batsman of the tournament - his incredible scoop shot has added an extra revolution in the art of Twenty20 batting - but it is the incredible variety of their bowling attack that has squashed resistance so far. From the slingshots from Lasith Malinga to Ajantha Mendis's carrom balls to the timeless wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan, they can produce 12 overs out of 20 against which no liberties can safely be taken. Like Pakistan in the early 1990s, partnerships can be created, but once wickets start to fall, collapses rarely seem far behind.
West Indies are the more complex unit in terms of what makes them tick, but their cricket promises to be a thousand times less subtle. Gayle will smite and smite hard, Fidel Edwards, if fit, will hit the pitch and aim for breakthroughs. Nobody realistically believed they could turn their fortunes around so rapidly, but here they are. One match away from the game that could secure their redemption. Sri Lanka, by contrast, have been among the favourites all along. They remain that way for this contest, but only by a nose.
Form guide(last five matches, most recent first)
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Chris Gayle would make a stunning trade unionist. He is more shop-floor steward than international captain, as shown by his attitude during the Test series that no one wanted at the start of the summer. It was clear he didn't want to be involved, and his team-mates joined him on the picket lines. Now, all of a sudden, he knows what he wants and is going for it hard. His team is still riding the momentum of his monstrous onslaught against Australia (and Brett Lee) on this very ground in their opening game of the tournament. He made 88 from 50 balls that day, with six of the biggest sixes ever witnessed in South London.
He's been overshadowed by his opening partner, Dilshan, but Sanath Jayasuriya remains a menace to any bowling attack that fails to get its lines and lengths spot on, as West Indies' is wont to do. His ability to launch sixes over point remains undiminished even with days to go until his 40th birthday, and as the driving force behind Sri Lanka's first and most glorious triumph, the 1996 World Cup, his knowhow remains vital to his team. So too could his often under-rated left-arm spin, especially on an Oval track that has been seen to turn appreciably in the earlier rounds.
Everything for West Indies hinges on the fitness of their strike bowler, Fidel Edwards, who is suffering nerve trouble in his back. The management are "very optimistic" that he'll be ready for Friday afternoon, but if he does sit out, then Darren Sammy is likely to step in.
West Indies: (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Andre Fletcher, 3 Dwayne Bravo, 4 Lendl Simmons, 5 Ramnaresh Sarwan, 6 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 7 Denesh Ramdin, 8 Keiron Pollard, 9 Jerome Taylor, 10 Sulieman Benn, 11 Fidel Edwards.
No such problems for Sri Lanka, who expect to name their full-strength side.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (capt/wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Chamara Silva, 6 Jehan Mubarak, 7 Angelo Mathews, 8 Nuwan Kulasekara, 9 Lasith Malinga, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Ajantha Mendis.
Pitch and conditions
Gayle and his men have enjoyed the conditions in SE11, with two wins in three matches, and even in defeat against South Africa, they still posted a respectable 163. Sri Lanka haven't yet played here, although the prospect holds no fear for Kumar Sangakkara. "It looks a pretty even track with good bounce," he said, "so if our spinners can get a bit more bounce they'll be more effective, and get that bit extra for taking wickets."
Stats and Trivia
- West Indies' run rate of 9.05 is easily the best in the tournament, well ahead of Australia's 8.20, and Sri Lanka in third on 8.13.
- Sri Lanka have been outstanding with the ball, taking 40 wickets - only South Africa and Pakistan have taken more - at an average of less than 18 each.
- Click here for more stats
"Our side from the very inception has been one unit, we've played cricket with or against each other since we were 12. In our dressing-room we have amazing players but we have no egos."
Sri Lanka's captain Kumar Sangakkara believes his team has a perfect dynamic going into the final stages of the tournament.
"When they get the runs on the board, whatever total you give them, they've got the bowling attack to defend it. We need to plan well and go out in the middle and execute well."
West Indies' captain Chris Gayle is wary of the variety of Sri Lanka's attack.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo