Jayawardene leads the way for Lanka

Captain's knock... Sri Lanka's Mahela Jayawardene is congratulated by his counterpart from New Zealand, Stephen Fleming, after steering his team to a challenging total with an unbeaten century.-AP

Both Sri Lanka and New Zealand were nervous. However, the Lankans handled it better, stuck to their routines more expertly and expressed their skills more naturally. New Zealand, on the other hand, wilted. S. Ram Mahesh reports.

Often, thanks to the homogenisation of the television product, the rawness of the contest is lost. The anxiety, the tension, the pressure isn't as apparent as it is when watching in situ. Even if it's a view a bird with a passing interest in cricket will be privileged to: the press box at Sabina Park is at an impossible angle, and the perception of depth is lost. But, the nervousness of both Sri Lanka and New Zealand filtered through.

Sri Lanka handled it better, stuck to its routines more expertly, expressed its skill more naturally. New Zealand wilted.

"We were very nervous," said Stephen Fleming, who stepped down as the captain of New Zealand's ODI side. "We were desperate to get through. But, we weren't accurate with the ball in the final overs. In the last couple of years, the two areas New Zealand cricket has been strong in are the opening batting — well the top-order bating — and bowling at the death. At some stage we were going to be exposed. It happened in a World Cup semifinal."

In its final 10 overs, Sri Lanka pillaged 102 runs. Mahela Jayawardene switched gears exceptionally. Having scored his first 15 runs in 42 balls, he made the next 100 in 67.

"We were anxious and nervous as well," said Jayawardene. "I was very nervous until I faced my first ball. I haven't played a semifinal before, there are a few guys who have. I thoroughly enjoyed the moment. In big games there are always nerves."

Opener Upul Tharanga's half-century was central to the cause, and worked on many levels. He was squared up on occasion. He edged more than his quota of fours. But two boundaries square on the off-side confirmed his talent. The first was kept to ground, bat face opening just so; the second was half carved, half slapped over point.

Tharanga hit Daniel Vettori over cover for six, but the left-arm spinner exacted his revenge. He changed to around the wicket, and Tharanga missed sweeping a straight ball. But, his 74-ball 73 (9x4, 1x6) had given Sri Lanka a start and Jayawardene time to acclimatise on a slowing track.

"I thought 240 would be a competitive score and anything beyond that a guarantee," said Jayawardene. "But this is a small ground and they have some big hitters so I wasn't sure. For me, it was just trying to bat through, see where I was at in the 45th-46th over."

Tillakaratne Dilshan knows only one way to play: picaresque with a profusion of bottom-handed strokes, even when hitting through the off-side. He was off at a run a ball.

"Dilshan came and provided the momentum," said Jayawardene. "He steered the pressure off me. It got to a situation where I could hit the boundaries, and it just clicked."

It did click, as Sri Lanka ran up a total of 289 for five.

New Zealand needed to start assuredly. But, Lasith Malinga's unorthodox pace didn't allow it. In a spell of four terrific overs — replete with deliveries that skidded away from the right-hander — Malinga removed Stephen Fleming, and gave Ross Taylor hell. Fleming's leg-before decision was marginal, but it was no worse than what two Sri Lanka's batsmen copped. Deprived of Fleming's assuring touch and calming manner, New Zealand struggled to cope with Chaminda Vaas and Malinga.

Scott Styris then began New Zealand's best phase with the bat. Dilhara Fernando, who touched speeds of 145kmph much like the man he replaced, was glanced fine and deposited over long-on. Vaas was cross-batted over mid-wicket.

Peter Fulton meanwhile was using the all-encompassing sweep of his bat arc to punch the seamers. The same leverage allowed him to flick Fernando for six.

Styris had earlier hit Fernando for his second six, but he reserved the stroke of the innings for Muttiah Muralitharan. He advanced down the track to a doosra, and lofted it with a classical swing of the bat. The swing had the arms extending along the top elbow, so bat was held parallel to the ground on completion. It wasn't the flail of a lesser light.

Jayawardene then proved why he's one of the two best captains in the world. He removed Muralitharan — much like he had against India when Virender Sehwag got to him — and replaced him with Tillakaratne Dilshan. A careless chip ended in mid-wicket's hands, and New Zealand had lost its form player. Jayawardene brought Muralitharan back after Styris's departure.

"I tried Murali for two overs during the Power Play," said Jayawardene. "But, I couldn't use all my attacking options up front. I also had to cover for Dilhara. So I thought I could sneak in four-five overs after the Power Play, but Dilshan got a wicket. It was totally unexpected, it was a bonus. Then Murali came and asked me if we wanted to attack them. I thought we could attack and put some pressure on their batting. Nothing was planned, everything just happened very fast."

Muralitharan fed the batsmen a diet of doosras. Jacob Oram pushed at one to be freakishly caught and bowled, Muralitharan inadvertently switching ball from hand to hand as he dived; Brendon McCullum swept inexpertly at one for Chamara Silva to take a fine diving catch at short-fine; and Daniel Vettori was leg-before to another.

New Zealand lost four for two, and consequently the contest. "We were outclassed at key moments, which is probably reflected in the wide margin," said Fleming. "We are proud of where we got to, the semifinals, but disappointed that we couldn't go on — it's a feeling other New Zealand sides have had as well.

For a country like ours to keep producing sides that make the semifinals is an achievement, but it's not good enough. We are just not good enough. It's a line in the sand, and we haven't been able to cross it. We have to produce players that can take us to the final and go on and win it."

THE SCORES

First semifinal: New Zealand v Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka won by 81 runs.

Sri Lanka: U. Tharanga b Vettori 73; S. Jayasuriya b Franklin 1; K. Sangakkara c Fleming b Franklin 18; M. Jayawardene (not out) 115; C. Silva lbw b Bond 21; T. Dilshan lbw b Oram 30; R. Arnold (not out) 14; Extras (lb-3, w-9, nb-5) 17. Total (for five wkts., in 50 overs) 289.

Fall of wkts: 1-13, 2-67, 3-111, 4-152, 5-233.

New Zealand bowling: Franklin 9-1-46-2; Bond 10-1-59-1; Oram 10-0-60-1; Vettori 10-0-51-1; Patel 10-0-62-0; Styris 1-0-8-0.

New Zealand: P. Fulton c Silva b Jayasuriya 46; S. Fleming lbw b Malinga 1; R. Taylor lbw b Vaas 9; S. Styris c Jayawardene b Dilshan 37; J. Oram c & b Muralitharan 3; B. McCullum c Silva b Muralitharan 0; C. McMillan b Jayasuriya 25; D. Vettori lbw b Muralitharan 0; J. Franklin (not out) 30; S. Bond b Muralitharan 2; J. Patel c Fernando b Dilshan 34; Extras (b-5, lb-2, w-8, nb-6) 21. Total (in 41.4 overs) 208.

Fall of wkts: 1-2, 2-32, 3-105, 4-114, 5-114, 6-115,7-116, 8-144, 9-149.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 8-1-25-1; Malinga 7-2-21-1; Fernando 5-0-45-0; Muralitharan 8-0-31-4; Jayasuriya 9-0-57-2; Dilshan 4.4-0-22-2.