By Arran Solomonsz
As the dust settles after the group stages, the cricket world cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand finally prepares to build to a crescendo. After a highly competitive, if not somewhat drawn-out round robin, the quarter final line-up looks largely familiar with the notable exception of England. Qualification was via finishing in the top four of two groups, each containing five full-member nations and a couple of associate nations, where each team plays each other. For the first time in many a year, the associate nations consistently performed, if not always managing to convert these into victories. Of note was from Zimbabwe’s valiant chase versus South Africa and Ireland’s riveting and ultimately successful chase against West Indies. Perhaps the game of the tournament was in fact between two of the associate nations, Afghanistan and Scotland, producing an enthralling finish and a 1-wicket win by the spirited Afghans. The teams that progressed were (from pool A) India, South Africa, Pakistan and West Indies, and (from pool B) Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Having travelled to the other side of the world to follow the Sri Lankan team in their quest for qualification, here are a few of my thoughts heading into the Lions’ quarter-final clash against South Africa. Their campaign got off to quite an inauspicious start, and I’m not even referring to the opening match demolition by New Zealand in the picturesque surroundings of the Hagley Oval, Christchurch – the 15-man Sri Lankan squad picked left eyebrows raised. Perhaps the biggest cloud over the Sri Lankan camp was the fitness of their talisman with ball-in-hand, Lasith Malinga. Those fears only grew after they were blown away in all aspects of the game by a rampant Kiwi side in Christchurch, a rather disappointing start on the big stage. Brendon McCullum et al batted first and started off like a house on fire, with Sri Lanka employing containing tactics early on to try and keep a lid on the run rate. With all of the top 7 contributing they reached a score of 331-6 after 50 overs.
This looked like a tall ask as the Lankans hadn’t registered a score of over 300 in the preceding 7-match ODI series against the Kiwis. After a promising start of 124-1, a flurry of wickets ripped out the middle order and led to an inevitable 98-run loss. However, all was not lost, as the format of the tournament meant that victories against Bangladesh and the two associates would guarantee qualification anyway. Credit also where credit is due, New Zealand are a fine outfit and are looking like potential title winners.
After a week of reflection, Sri Lanka put the disappointment behind them by beating Afghanistan (albeit after being in the precarious position of 51-4), successfully chasing a score of 232 largely due to Mahela Jayawardene’s 100. A comprehensive win over Bangladesh at a charged MCG followed, Sangakarra registering 100 and Dilshan top scoring with 161*. With Malinga also finding some form with the ball, these two victories constituted a job well done. The batting line-up was to purr further in the game against England in Wellington.
After England put up a beyond-par (or so the stats said) 309 off their 50-overs, the legendary Sangakarra made folly of this by bringing up another hundred-plus score. Chanceless, this was his quickest ODI century in his 401st game. Supported by the vice-captain Lahiru Thirimanne, who also registered a century, Sri Lanka eased home with overs, and many a batsman, to spare. So whilst the bowling attacked seemed porous, conceding over 300 as a matter of course, the batsmen were consistently showing their class.
However, their SCG battle with the Australians was a bridge too far, the Ozzies hammering 376, leaving even the vaunted Sri Lankan batting line-up too much to do. That didn’t stop Sangakarra giving it a right go, eventually being dismissed for 104, yet another century I hear you say. Of particular joy in this game was Dilshan’s assault on Mitchell Johnson, hitting a full over of 4’s! Sri Lanka ensured qualification to the quarter finals with a clinical performance in beating Scotland, once again the glorious batting of Sangakarra the highlight, hitting his fourth consecutive world cup hundred, rewriting history books in the process.
Looking ahead to the quarter final showdown with South Africa – it’s a difficult game to call. The South Africans look to be blowing hot and cold – put them under pressure and their batting can crack, although they will feast on poor bowling, proven by already registering two 400+ scores. The Sri Lankan bowling attack is a worry, the likes of AB De Villiers and David Miller could put us to the sword. However, with Malinga looking leaner and meaner as the games go by, hopefully he can fire and restrict the South Africans. I think this game rests on the contest between the Sri Lankan bowlers and the South African batsmen, and vitally Rangana Herath is back in action. Spurred on by vocal support at the SCG, I’m backing the Lankans to come out on top.