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The 'chickens' come home to roost

Sri Lanka may have claimed the honours during the first innings with a livewire display in the field, bowling with discipline and fielding brilliantly to restrict South Africa to a modest total. But South Africa's burning intensity, fuelled by a desire for revenge having been labelled "chickens" by Sri Lanka's media in the aftermath of their hasty withdrawal from the tri-series in August, proved too overpowering when it came to chasing under lights at Ahmedabad.

Sri Lanka's recent one-day successes have been founded on the prolific form of their top four, the four top scorers in one-day cricket during the past year, but against a pumped-up Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini they quickly came unstuck. Having chosen to chase to protect their bowlers from the heavy dew, the new ball was always going to be the key passage of the game.

But while the heavy dew was a hindrance to South Africa, the early damage was too severe for Sri Lanka's middle and lower order - weakened by the dropping of seventh batsman Chamara Kapugedera - to capitalise on the slippery outfield. The ball jagged around sharply off the seam and Sri Lanka's fallibility against the moving ball was brutally exposed. The decision to bowl first, always a gamble despite the dew, backfired spectacularly.

The warning signs were soon evident as the openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga, were a shadow of their normal belligerent selves, becalmed by the metronomic accuracy of Pollock and a lively Makhaya Ntini. A slice of good fortune also helped South Africa, as Jayasuriya was adjudged lbw to a delivery pitching outside leg, triggering a fast slide into chaos.

South Africa had come out after the break with their tails up having plundered 37 runs from the final three overs and Sri Lanka, so adept at stealing the momentum at the top of the innings in recent months, were not able to reclaim a foothold on the match in the face of some high-class pace bowling. All the South African bowlers - Pollock, Ntini and Andre Nel - bowled with a fierce intensity, striking so fast and deeply that Sri Lanka could not regroup.

Tharanga was exposed by Ntini by a lifting delivery outside off-stump, Kumar Sangakkara prodded with leaden footwork and Marvan Atapattu's good judgement deserted him as he shouldered arms to a great delivery that nipped back. Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan threatened to wrestle back the momentum with a 45-run stand, but a calamitous miscommunication after some electric fielding from Herschelle Gibbs was a cruel blow. Gibbs also applied the killer blow with a brilliant catch off a rasping Dilshan cut.

The decision to bowl first and leave out the extra batsman will be critically examined in the aftermath of the defeat. The balance of six batters and five bowlers has worked well in recent months but until Farveez Maharoof can prove himself a top-class number seven it does leave them exposed after an early collapse. But the truth is that South Africa stole victory with an impassioned effort with the new ball, seizing their chance with an opportunism befitting their No 2 ranking.

The defeat strips Sri Lanka of their "favourites" tag and leaves them on the verge of elimination. Their only hope is that Pakistan win both their remaining matches against New Zealand and South Africa, allowing them to creep through to the semi-finals on net run rate. But the chances of that remain slim considering how evenly matched this group has been and Sri Lanka are likely to be heading home, a massive blow for a team that truly believed the tournament was theirs for the taking.

South Africa, meanwhile, after a disastrous start against New Zealand on a minefield in Mumbai, have bounced right back into contention. While they may be handicapped by the absence of quality spinners, their pace bowlers could take them through, especially if they can conjure up the intensity that they produced tonight. One thing is for sure, none of their opponents will be calling them chickens.