Little to separate the two teams before final Group 1 game, which has become a virtual quarter-final
A month ago, if you had conducted a poll among cricket pundits around the world and asked which team were most likely to go all the way at the ICC World Twenty20 2014, the near unanimous answer would have been: Sri Lanka. The reasons are manifold.
Experts would have pointed to Sri Lanka’s familiarity with subcontinental conditions and the fact that it was grouped with New Zealand, England and South Africa in the Super10s, all teams that have documented weakness against quality spin bowling. They would have suggested that the other group, packed as it was with Australia, West Indies, India and Pakistan, was too close to call. Attention would have been drawn to Lasith Malinga, the meanest death bowler this format has seen.
While all these theories hold water, cricket is played out in the middle, not in television studios, and when bat meets ball, the best conceived hypotheses are laid to waste.
For starters, the pitch at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium has had the pace of a subcontinental track, but none of grip, which, coupled with the excessive dew around in night matches, has played into the hands of skiddy seamers. Next, Sri Lanka’s lead spinner, Ajantha Mendis, has been taken to the cleaners, going for 44 and 52 from his four overs against South Africa and England respectively.
It is with this background that Sri Lanka finds themselves going into its last group-stage match on Monday (March 31), against New Zealand, desperately needing a victory to stay in the competition.
It might not have been intended that way, but this match has become a virtual quarter-final, with the loser being knocked out, much as the South Africa v England game panned out.
AB de Villiers, who set up South Africa’s win over England, looked back at his encounters against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and struggled to pick a winner in Monday’s game. “It’s another quarter-final. The clear favourites are Sri Lanka, obviously, being used to these conditions. They’re playing really good cricket, but I’ll sit on the fence on that one,” he said. “The New Zealanders are very competitive and are playing some tough cricket. They’re hard to beat in pressure situations and are a really good fielding team, which will count in their favour on this ground with the wet ball. It’s 50-50.”
Another captain who has experience against the two teams, Peter Borren of the Netherlands, had a lighthearted take. “If it just goes on the evidence of the two games we’ve had then I think Sri Lanka will smash them ...” said Borren with a booming laugh, having been bundled out for 39 against Sri Lanka and then putting up a proper fight against New Zealand. “On a serious note, I really don’t know, both teams are good.”
New Zealand, as is its wont, has flown under the radar in the tournament. It pulled off a crafty win against England, getting ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis curve just as rain killed a big chase after 5.2 overs. While it just failed to get over the line against South Africa, Dale Steyn starring with the ball, New Zealand coasted home against the Netherlands.
It has had key contributions from Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor at different times, and has quality all-round options in Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham to back the specialists. If any combination of these players fire, Sri Lanka will have its work cut out.
Malinga, who will lead his team as Dinesh Chandimal sits the match out with a suspension for slow over rates, was not fretting about what New Zealand might do. “We are not thinking about the opposition. We are thinking about our players, their skill how to develop that during tomorrow's game. That's very important for us,” said Malinga. “We are playing night games and we must know to use those conditions. We can't give excuses for our skill. We know exactly what situation we have to face and prepare for that in training. We can't make excuses about wet balls and things like that.”
While Malinga will be leading Sri Lanka for the first time, that was not something that played on his mind. “It’s a good feeling to lead for the first time. I like challenges, whether it is as a bowler or as a player in general. But, I am not thinking too much about my captaincy, I have to contribute first as a player,” said Malinga. “There are experienced guys like Kumar (Sangakkara), Mahela (Jayawardene), (Tillakaratne) Dilshan and Angelo (Matthews) in the team and they will all contribute with ideas and guidance.”
The only thing Malinga concerned himself with was making it to the final four. “We have no choice but to win the match. We’re in very good shape mentally,” said Malinga. “In all our recent tournaments, when we have been faced with a crucial match, we have come through. We’ve handled the pressure of the big matches well. We need to do that again tomorrow.”
New Zealand: Brendon McCullum (capt), Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Colin Munro, Anton Devcich, Corey Anderson, Jimmy Neesham, Luke Ronchi (wk), Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Nathan McCullum, Mitchell McClenaghan, Trent Boult, Ronnie Hira.
Sri Lanka: Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Kusal Perera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Thisara Perera, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara, Ajantha Mendis, Sachithra Senanayake, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal, Seekkuge Prasanna.