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The Magic of the 3Ms - Murali, Malinga and Mendis powered Sri Lanka into the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup for the third time in the last five editions as the magnificent bowling triumvirate picked up 8 Kiwi wickets to bowl out New Zealand for an ordinary 217 at the R Premadasa Stadium on Tuesday. The batsmen had the easy task of knocking off the runs and appeared to be coasting towards an easy win at 160/1, but a mixture of some careless cricket from the Lankans and some solid defensive bowling from the Kiwis allowed New Zealand to make a match of the contest. Sri Lanka finally got home with 5 wickets and 13 balls to spare.
Daniel Vettori took the toss head on. If he was upset about the fact that the game was going to be played on the same pitch that saw England drubbed on Saturday, he did not seek to be cowed. Going in with left-arm seamer Andy McKay rather than play the third spinner in Luke Woodcock, he opted to bat, casting a blind eye to the talk that the Premadasa had, of late, eased up for the chasing.
The curator seemed to have had highly patriotic intentions, and the wicket was as slow as ever a Premadasa wicket was. While there was swing on offer for Lasith Malinga's first over, there were early signs of lag in the pitch as the openers often faced deliveries which took an eternity to reach the bat. Martin Guptill latched on to some over-pitched bowling to find the fence early on. During a watchful stay at the crease, Brendon McCullum (13) waited patiently for the stagnating ball and defended more than is his wont. He did swing a couple of lusty blows in his innings before getting his stumps knocked over when he attempted a slog-sweep from outside the off-stump to Rangana Herath. After a steady start on a wicket that presented the odd ripper, the Kiwis had got to 38/1 in the first 10.
Jesse Ryder looked to carry on from where he had left off against Pakistan, slapping some powerful drives, whilst balancing a newly developed head of sanity, and steering balls that bit into the track for singles. He, therefore, would have been disappointed when, after 19 hard-earned runs, he edged a ripping top-spinner from Muttiah Muralitharan that should ideally have been played off the front foot. If the two Ms and the H were troubling the Kiwi batsmen, probing away at their defence, the third M, brought back in the 22nd over created more depression in the Kiwi score when he tore through Guptill's (39) toes with a blazing in-swinging yorker. That brought Scott Styris and Ross Taylor together.
As premature reverse swing kicked in for Malinga, the batsmen Taylor and Styris needed to bestow extra care upon their wicket and play the long innings, yet score quickly to avoid the fate that befell the English batsmen a couple of days back. While Taylor ticked the runs over, Styris was looking in ominous touch, digging out yorkers and unfurling smart drives out to half-volleys. The Kiwi innings feared a halting when in the 40th over, Taylor dragged a long-hop from Mendis straight to the fielder at deep midwicket to fall for 36. The pending Batting PowerPlay was crying out for the kind of marauding Taylor is capable of, but the earnest bat of Kane Williamson was not to let Taylor's wicket cost the Kiwis much. He would approach the spinners with twinkling feet, and chip them smartly over the infield. He looked like he had read the field cover to cover, but sadly, his charismatic 16-ball innings was cut short at 22 when he missed a reverse-swinging in-swinger from Malinga.
Although 41 runs came from that PowerPlay, Sri Lanka went on to get timely wickets; Nathan McCullum (9) cut a slower one from Malinga, Oram (7) heaved a skier to be caught at long on, and Tim Southee and Andy McKay prodded fatally at Mendis. Styris had looked set for a launch at the end, but his tame back-foot LBW to Murali on 57 meant New Zealand, who, at 161/3 at the 40-over-mark, had looked like they could stretch it to 240, could but stutter their way to 217 all out.
The Lankans started positively in response to a target which was just 4 runs shy of what they chased a few days ago against the English. The two centurions in that match, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga seemed in contrasting touch though. Tharanga was oozing confidence and was looking for the ball while Dilshan was being kept quiet by some tight Kiwi bowling. The opening pair were denied another record stand when Tharanga fell for a near run-a-ball innings of 30 which included 4 boundaries and a massive six straight down the ground off Nathan McCullum. The left-hander was pouched up thanks to a brilliant diving catch by Jesse Ryder at backward point off Tim Southee, but not before giving Sri Lanka the ideal start.
Sri Lanka made their way to 47/1 at the end of the mandatory power play and were just about ahead of the asking rate. New Zealand pegged things back a bit in the next 10 overs allowing the Lankans only 36 runs, but crucially failed to pick up any wickets. Both batsmen had decided to drop anchor for a bit and knew that if Sri Lanka batted out the 50 overs, there was no way they would lose this game. Dilshan had made his way through to a very responsible 31 from 57 balls, while Sangakkara had played himself in to reach 17 from 32 deliveries.
The start of the 21st over signalled a change in intentions for the Lankans with Sangakkara driving a half-volley straight down the ground for four. The skipper found the fence again in Andy McKay's next over, and Dilshan joined in the fun in the 24th over, tonking Jacob Oram for a six and a four to take Sri Lanka past the 100 run mark. A minimum of a boundary an over followed in every over thereafter till the 31st as Sri Lanka powered to 147/1 in the 30th to get their run rate up edging towards 5 and the asking rate down to just about 3.5.
Dilshan and Sangakkara had brought up their half centuries and appeared to be coasting towards an easy win, when New Zealand finally got a lifeline by picking up the wicket of Dilshan, caught by Ryder off Southee for 73. It was a wide half-volley that Dilshan fell to, asking to be hit and he obliged, unfortunately straight to the fielder. One wicket brought two and Daniel Vettori landed a second massive blow within the space of a few balls by trapping Mahela Jayawardene in front of his stumps for 1.
The match was completely turned on its head in the 37th over when Kumar Sangakkara played a very poor shot, guiding a short ball from Andy McKay straight down the throat of the fielder at third man. Sangakkara fell for 54 and his demise brought Thilan Samaraweera and Chamara Silva together in the middle. Both men were woefully short of game time, having got virtually no opportunities to bat in the World Cup due to the prolific form of the Lankan top order. A buoyed New Zealand responded brilliantly by bringing the field in and challenging the batsmen to go over the top if they dared.
At the end of the 41st over Sri Lanka had made their way to just 176, scoring barely 15 runs in the last 8 overs for the loss of 3 vital wickets. The introduction of Jesse Ryder into the attack in the 42nd over released the pressure with 9 runs coming from the over, though New Zealand could have well picked up another wicket had Vettori been brave enough to give his bowler a slip as the ball made its way off the outside edge to the boundary, not for the first time in the innings. Southee continued to breathe fire though and kept New Zealand in the game removing Chamara Silva for 13 as the batsman dragged an innocuous delivery onto his stumps. At the end of the over, Sri Lanka needed 33 runs to win from 42 balls but had only 5 wickets left!
Thilan Samaraweere held fort from one end and found a reliable partner in Angelo Mathews to calm the nerves of an edgy home crowd. Ryder surprisingly got a second over and was sent by Samaraweera to the mid-wicket boundary. Five wides from Andy McKay, Ryder's replacement, relieved the pressure and took the Lankans within 15 runs of victory. Angelo Mathews then came into his own smashing Southee for a 6 and a 4 in the 47th over to bring the task down to one hit. The winning runs came off the blade of Samaraweera's bat, an outside edge, perhaps an ironic stamp of what might have been. Samaraweera showed his class at the end, remaining unbeaten on 23, arguably the most vital twenty three runs he has ever scored.
New Zealand will be disappointed with their performance on the night, having made some rudimentary mistakes that cost them the game. Their batsmen failed to bat out the 50 overs and plenty of them got starts, but only one went on to convert that into a half-century. They were also uncharacteristically poor in the field, with misfields aplenty coming from the fielders within the ring, costing them atleast 10-15 runs. Vettori's unusually defensive approach at key moments cost them dear with an early outside edge from Sangakkara's bat going straight through where first slip would have been. Add all these little things up and they could have well been in the World Cup final. Putting tonight's performance aside though, they have done exceptionally well to just get this far and one can't help but admire how they have turned their poor sub-continental form around to achieve some level of success.
For Sri Lanka, the dream lives on and they will head to Mumbai believing that whoever they face in the Final on Saturday, they will have more than an even chance of coming away with a win. Their fragile middle order still remains a concern, but showed today that they are well capable of getting the job done. On a memorable personal note, champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, playing his last match on home soil ended his 10-over spell by getting the vital wicket of top scorer Scott Styris with his final delivery.
New Zealand: Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, Scott Styris, Kane Williamson, Jacob Oram, Nathan McCullum, Daniel Vettori, Tim Southee, Andy McKay.
Sri Lanka: Tillakaratne Dilshan, Upul Tharanga, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Chamara Silva, Thillan Samaraweera, Angelo Mathews, Lasith Malinga, Rangana Herath, Muttaiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis.
New Zealand: 217 all out (48.5 overs; 4.44 runs per over)
S Styris 57 (77 balls) L Malinga 3/55
M Guptill 39 (65 balls) A Mendis 3/35
Sri Lanka 220/5 (47.5 overs, 4.59 runs per over)
T Dilshan 73 (93) T Southee 3-57
K Sangakkara 54 (79) D Vettori 1-36
Sri Lanka win by 5 wickets
File Photograph Copyright: ICC World T20
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