The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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For a berth in semis it’s not a laugh match

Johannesburg, March 9: Given the occasion, the teams’ photo shoot on the SAS Outeniqua, last month, encouraged much bonhomie among the World Cuppers. Muttiah Muralidharan, specially, was warmer than usual and greeted Sachin Tendulkar with “I hope you score five-six hundreds”.

Of course, Murali didn’t envisage an India versus Sri Lanka shootout early into the Super Six. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have hoped for “five-six” hundreds: Sachin has already scored one (152 against Namibia) and missed another (98 versus Pakistan). Tomorrow, he may well set sights on ODI hundred No. 35.

That will neither suit Lanka nor Murali. Sachin and Murali haven’t had a confrontation for some years. Given the equation, Lanka must win to give itself a chance of making the semifinals. For India, four points will confirm a berth in the last four.

No quarter will be given in a contest where emotions will have a place. Unless both teams advance, it will be the last India-match for Aravinda de Silva, who made his first appearance in 1985.

Today, Aravinda didn’t really get the time to reflect on the past, but did say the “occasion” has always been special. “The pressure is there... Better cricket will carry the day,” he said.

Asked whether another fine knock (following the 92 and 73 in the last two games) would compel a rethink on retirement, Aravinda laughed: “No... But it’s possible I could again face India... In the semifinals, or even the final.”

Lanka will need Aravinda’s confidence if they are to put it across India.

The build-up has seen Lanka battle with captain Sanath Jayasuriya’s fitness. Clearly the cynosure at this afternoon’s workout, Sanath announced he was “80 per cent fit”. The Brett Lee-inflicted bruise on his arm is better, but the hairline crack on the left thumb remains a worry.

It won’t surprise, though, if that 80 per cent becomes 100 per cent. A source revealed Sanath would “definitely” play. The Indians too are assuming he will be available.

Despite five victories in succession, captain Sourav Ganguly chose to be cautiously confident. “We’ll have to play good cricket... That has no substitute... The Lankans are a good side.” Last September’s Champions Trophy would have given a current flavour to the head-to-head bit, but the elements ruined both the scheduled final and the replay.

In the NatWest, however, India was far superior. But, then, the Lankans will argue Murali wasn’t around.

As both teams are familiar with each other, innovation could make a difference. Only, given what is at stake, the captains may prefer conventional cricket to risking tonnes of criticism. This afternoon, the wicket had moisture and with rain being a pretty regular feature in these parts, the toss could become more crucial than it ought to be.

With the bowlers consistent and the key batsmen (save Virender Sehwag) among the runs, the Indians are actually without a real worry. It’s a luxury, though the fielding against Kenya was atrocious. Just one bad day in office is how Sourav, who completed three years as captain today, tried to explain it.

Hopefully, year No. 4 will begin without Sourav having to offer any explanation.

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