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Stage set for fiery contest

Colombo: They haven’t met in the last three years and an amount of caution has crept Australia and Sri Lanka. But so much of animosity has developed between these two sides over the years that their encounter always gives a fresh edge to the contest.

Muttiah Muralidharan vs Shane Warne, Sanath Jayasuriya vs Matthew Hayden, Chaminda Vaas vs Glenn McGrath — the individual contests could always upstage team effort to determine the course of the second ICC Champions Trophy semi-final.

It will always be a battle between the fanatical support that the home team will enjoy against the mighty reputation of the Australians. “These two factors make the sides evenly balanced,” said coach Dav Whatmore.

The Sri Lankans are back in their habit of winning matches after the disastrous tour of England and it will take extra effort from the visitors to make their maiden final entry. The batting has flourished under skipper Jayasuriya and the experienced hand of Aravinda de Silva. The Lankan skipper, despite “not 100 per cent fit” since the shoulder injury, has been in fine fettle, and with Maravan Atapattu forms an intimidating opening combination.

It will also depend on how soon the hosts manage to dismiss Australian openers Adam Gilchrist and Hayden to upset their applecart. If their partnership is nipped in the bud, the Lankans can look ahead with some hope.

It will put pressure on the middle-order, for Ricky Ponting and Co. will have to handle things with a cool brain. The good news for them has been that Damien Martyn is fit and will be back in the side. The Lankans, on the other hand, are likely to go in with an unchanged XI.

The Australians played their last game in the tournament seven days back and, in between, have taken a break to the Maldives. “We are trying to get back into the groove. But it was a nice way to relax and freshen up for a few days,” said skipper Ricky Ponting this morning.

There was a light “optional” practice session for the players in the afternoon but that does not mean any bit of complacency has crept into their ranks. “We may be the No. 1 side but we’ll always try and improve on that. We would never want to be No. 2,” the Australian skipper said.

The main cause of concern for them has been the wicket as well as the conditions. “The heat is a bit of a worry. We’ve been here for a while and trying to cope with the help of our physical instructor. It involves having plenty of water before and on the morning of the match.

“Sri Lanka are used to the conditions but that doesn’t bother us. Our players are experienced enough to overcome such handicaps,” Ponting explained.

Given the slow Premadasa wicket and the way South African crashed Wednesday, the Aussies are unwilling to take chances. “We’ll prefer to bat first. I think all sides have been on the same boat,” Ponting declared.

The hosts are not thinking on those lines and will take things as they come. “There have been instances in the meet when sides batting second have won comfortably. So that’s not a big worry,” Jayasuriya said.

The Aussies are not going to put pressure on themselves by thinking too much about the opposition, especially Murali. “He’s a world class wicket-taking bowler. But we haven’t thought too much about him. We spoke among ourselves as to how we’ve tackled him in the past. Everyone has individual plans,” Ponting said.

“We’re not going to complicate ourselves with too many thoughts. We’ll just try and stick to the basics of the one-day game,” he added.

As Ponting made his mind known, it will be a “fiery contest”. And the Australians promised they “will do everything” within their limits to unsettle the home team.

TEAMS

AUSTRALIA (likely): Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Michael Bevan, Shane Watson, Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie.

SRI LANKA (likely): Sanath Jayasuriya, Maravan Atapattu, Kumara Sangakkara, Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene, Russel Arnold, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralidharan, Pulasthi Gunaratne, Kumara Dharmasena, Dilhara Fernando.

Umpires: Steve Bucknor, Dave Orchard.

Match Referee: Wasim Raja.

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