Atapattu rises to the occasion, yet again

Only a win could carry Sri Lanka to the next stage and the occasion brought the best out of the team, which had struggled to get things together all through.

Vijay Lokapally

East London is a quiet place. Water sport is a great attraction in this coastal town, but the sports loving people enjoy a game of cricket as well. Well, when Sri Lanka arrived at East London to play the crucial match against Zimbabwe, it had a task in hand, to qualify for the semifinal of the ICC Cricket World Cup. For captain Sanath Jayasuriya, it was stiff test and he did emerge with his reputation intact.

Only a win could carry Sri Lanka to the next stage and the occasion brought the best out of the team, which had struggled to get things together all through. "We've had quite a few problems and it didn't help us to see the middle order struggling. The batting failure in the middle order has been the main problem for us,'' said Jayasuriya as he took stock of the team after a thumping win over Zimbabwe.

The match saw a brilliant century from Marvan Atapattu, who had a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. "I knew I had to make the best of the chance that we got after New Zealand lost to India. It was tough no doubt but then I've always enjoyed such situations,'' said Atapattu, who crafted his 10th one-day century and his second of the current World Cup.

Sri Lanka won a good toss and then relied on the gifted Atapattu. He rated this innings most valuable of all because it came at the right time. "My task was to bat right through. The ball was not coming on nicely and I really had to work hard for my runs. But then that's the way I like to bat and it suited me to hang in there and earn my runs. As long as it helped the team I was glad to do what I was told to. I've been batting like this for the last six months and it was a good feeling at the end of the day that my knock helped the team win the crucial match,'' said Atapattu.

Former Sri Lanka Test batsman Roshan Mahanama was all praise for Atapattu. "He's grown over the years as a batsman to rely upon and this innings I thought was very well compiled. It was not easy to score because the ball was coming slow off the pitch. The best thing that went in favour of Atapattu was the fact that he found himself facing a challenge. And when he faces a challenge I have seen Atapattu raise his level. It was also sensible that the other batsmen did not try to match him and were happy to play around him. It helped the cause,'' said Mahanama.

Atapattu's century was the highlight of the match, which saw Zimbabwe lose two players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga. The two announced their retirement from international cricket and as Zimbabwe skipper Heath Streak said "it's a sad day for Zimbabwe cricket. Andy and Henry have both played a huge role in the rise of Zimbabwe cricket and it's been very disappointing to lose both of them on the same day. It was similar to our losing Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson. It's going to be tough to find replacements for them in a short time. Losing the match and these two quality players was a big blow to Zimbabwe cricket,'' said Streak.

The Zimbabweans, as had been the trend of the team in the World Cup, did not play to its potential at all. Streak summed it rightly "our batting, barring Andy, was not consistent and it was not easy to defend small totals. The tailenders chipped in as batsmen and that was not a good sign. We've a lot of youngsters in the side who are still learning and I hope they improve with experience. We didn't have a single good partnership and when one was developing it got interrupted (Andy adjudged leg-before). But then such things happen. And then the toss also was influential.''

The toss helped Sri Lanka gain the first strike with Atpattu in grand form. He grafted runs and carried Sri Lanka to a competitive total, considering the state of the pitch. "The pitch was slow in the morning, but the Zimbabweans started off so well in the afternoon. But our bowlers managed a good line and length. It was a good change from the match against India when we did nothing right. I think we played good and very positive cricket against Zimbabwe and of course we owe it to Marvan, who came up with a hundred. He was flawless,'' said Jayasuriya, who led from the front to ensure the Sri Lankans did not mess up the opportunity that came their way.

New Zealand was stranded at eight points while Sri Lanka took its tally to 11.5. "It was close but we had the confidence to make it,'' said Jayasuriya, who played with a broken thumb. Sri Lanka gained by including Avishka Gunawardene in place of the hopeless out of form Mahela Jayawerdene and a neat little knock by Aravinda de Silva boosted the middle order where Kumara Sangakkara made his highest score of this tournament. "That was a crucial phase for us and it was a timely knock by Sangakkara,'' praised Jayasuriya.

Zimbabwe began on a rousing note with Craig Wishart and Douglas Marillier threatening to take the battle to the Sri Lankan camp. A superb ball by Jayasuriya ended Wishart's knock and despite an effort from Andy Flower and brother Grant, the Zimbabwe batting failed to make any impact at any stage, when the team needed a brilliant innings from either of the brothers. Andy was unfortunate to fall to a dubious decision but the rest had no clue as Chaminda Vaas returned to fox them with his reverse swing. Then the spinners took over to finish the job in style with the skipper finishing with three wickets.

For Man of the Match Atapattu it was a "very special innings'' and for Sri Lanka a laudable improvement in the approach after having suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of India. This was Sri Lanka's 22nd win against Zimbabwe, which won on five occasions. But this one stood out as far as Jayasuriya and his men were concerned.

The scores:

Sri Lanka: M. Atapattu (not out) 103; S. Jayasuriya c Taibu b Streak 22; A. Gunawardene c & b Marillier 41; A. De Silva c Taibu b Ervine 25; K. Sangakkara c G. Flower b Streak 35; R. Arnold c G. Flower b Hondo 1; C. Vaas (not out) 11; Extras (lb-3, w-15) 18. Total (for five wkts. in 50 overs) 256.

Fall of wickets: 1-41, 2-124, 3-175, 4-227, 5-233.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 10-0-40-2, Blignaut 8-0-40-0, Friend 2-0-13-0, Hondo 5-0-36-1, Flower 10-0-44-0, Marillier 10-0-43-1, Matsikenyeri 2-0-13-0, Ervine 3-0-24-1.

Zimbabwe: C. Wishart b Jayasuriya 43; D. Marillier c Jayasuriya b Gunaratne 19; T. Friend b Gunaratne 21; A. Flower lbw b De Silva 38; G. Flower c & b Jayasuriya 31; T. Taibu b Muralitharan 2; A. Blignaut c De Silva b Fernando 1; S. Ervine b Vaas 12; H. Streak c Atapattu b Jayasuriya 2; S. Matsikenyeri (not out) 1; D. Hondo b Vaas 0. Extras (lb-5, w-4, nb-3) 12. Total (in 41.5 overs) 182.

Fall of wickets: 1-36, 2-68, 3-111, 4-140, 5-150, 6-151, 7-178, 8-181, 9-181.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 9.5-0-46-2, Gunaratne 7-0-33-2, De Silva 9-1-36-1, Muralitharan 7-0-22-1, Jayasuriya 6-0-30-3, Fernando 3-0-10-1.