| Sachin Tendulkar lies on the ground while playing volleyball with his teammates at Durban. (AFP)
Port Elizabeth, March 17: Come tomorrow and South Africa’s oldest Test ground, St George’s Park, will host the newest edition of a recent cricket rivalry: Australia versus Sri Lanka.
At stake, of course, is a spot in the March 23 World Cup final. Yet, ever since Muttiah Muralidharan got the Darrell Hair treatment, in 1995-96, an Australia-Lanka contest hasn’t been about points on the field only. For the Lankans, specially, it has meant much more.
“Indeed, over the years, our players have produced outstanding performances,” acknowledged coach Dav Whatmore, born in Lanka but having worn the famed green baggy. While the champions have a handsome head-to-head lead, the Lankans came off better in two of the biggest matches — the 1996 World Cup final (Lahore) and last September’s Champions Trophy semifinals (Colombo).
However, had India not defeated New Zealand last week, the Lankans would have been home. “I’m thankful to India,” Whatmore told The Telegraph but, grinning, quickly added: “At the same time, New Zealand should be thanking us.... If we didn’t tie the South Africa game, they wouldn’t have made the Super Six.”
All that, though, is history. And, with Australian coach John Buchanan declining to label his team “predominant favourites”, a closer finish than most anticipate is on the cards. If anything, Lanka’s chances have improved with the dependable Damien Martyn out with a fractured right index finger.
Martyn’s injury — which should rule him out of the final as well — makes it three down for Australia. First, Shane Warne went home in disgrace. Then, Jason Gillespie couldn’t continue and, now, Martyn. That the Australians have remained unbeaten is a tribute to their character and the quality of their reserve bench.
There’s been considerable speculation over the wicket but, for a change, the Australians seemed satisfied. Semifinal No. 1, after all, won’t be on the wicket used for the Australia-England and Australia-New Zealand matches.
Given Australia’s record-rewriting run (15 ODI wins in succession), the pressure is appreciably more on them. Predictably, while Whatmore concurred, Buchanan didn’t quite agree.
“We are a better team,” he pointed out, while Whatmore maintained: “It’s a one-off game and so a bad day and Australia will be out. But, yes, they’ve been playing breathtaking cricket.”
In fact, Whatmore took a swipe at those who “don’t regard Lanka as a powerhouse of cricket”. In the coach’s opinion, it’s the perfect opportunity to do “much more” for the country. He confirmed, then, it would be more than a battle between Sanath Jayasuriya and Brett Lee or Ricky Ponting and Muralidharan.
Australia, typically, are sky-high on confidence. So much so, today’s nets was optional. Matthew Hayden, who hasn’t got as many runs as he should have, is one of those who availed of the option. Speaking exclusively, he declared: “For us, the business-end of the World Cup begins now.... It’s down to two matches and we intend winning both.”
Buchanan, at least, is convinced a “different” Hayden will take guard here.
It’s cliched, but the first 15 overs — in both innings — will have a huge bearing. As, too, the fielding throughout. The Lankans have often been tardy and, by Whatmore’s own admission, that can turn a game on its head.
Incidentally, in the Super Six, the Lankans were hammered by Australia.