Kiwis revel in home away from home

The triumphant New Zealand team — Pic. REUTERS-

KIWI efficiency came to the fore yet again at picturesque Dambulla, that has mountains on one side and a lake on the other.

KIWI efficiency came to the fore yet again at picturesque Dambulla, that has mountains on one side and a lake on the other. These New Zealanders indeed have an ODI outfit that works and Stephen Fleming's men lifted the Bank Alfalah Cup. What shone through was the commitment and character of the side, reflected in a four-wicket victory over Pakistan in the final.

The Kiwis must have been delighted with the pitch and the cloud cover at the Rangiri Stadium, where the ball seamed and bounced, the cordon behind the stumps having a busy time.

Indeed, this was a very different tournament in the sub-continent. In the past, teams with 300-plus scores have not felt safe, now the sides were hard-pressed to reach 200 or even less.

Though the surface favoured the pacemen, having a pitch of this nature will only benefit the sub-continental sides in the long run. New Zealand triumphed this time. But, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in particular the youngsters in the side, will be better prepared to counter seaming pitches when the sides undertake demanding away campaigns.

The tournament also disproved a pre-conceived notion in the sub-continent that limited overs internationals have to be tall-scoring affairs for them to be exciting. This has a hollow ring to it for the mountains of runs on featherbeds — where even accomplished pacemen are reduced to mere trundlers — count for nothing.

Low-scoring duels on pitches with some juice, where the batsmen have more of a challenge before them, can just be as pulse pounding. This was proved during the tournament, especially in the latter half of the league phase.

Sri Lanka's five-year winning streak in home ODI tournaments was broken. Considering the conditions that prevailed in Dambulla, this was hardly surprising. Much of Lanka's successes at home have been achieved on slow, turning tracks, where the batsmen would put the runs on the board, and then the spinners would choke the opposition batsmen.

Muttiah Muralitharan, the quality bowler that he is, could still pick up wickets, and, in fact, the Lankan attack fared well. But then, the Lankan batting came up short. When the ball seams and bounces, the Lankan batsmen do find the going that much more difficult.

In other words, one half of the Lankan success machine worked, the other failed. Yet, the experience will only stand the Lankans in good stead for future battles on similar tracks.

Much too often the sub-continental sides have got carried away by triumphs at home, where the pitches are either placid or assist the spinners, providing the teams with an exaggerated idea of their own strengths. Dambulla, though, came as a refreshing change, with the dice loaded against the batsmen for once.

The heavy rain in Colombo may have had a hand in determining the winner, too. According to the original schedule, Dambulla was to have hosted only the first three matches, with the rest of the duels slated for Colombo. Since, there was no way these matches could have taken place in the Lankan capital, the home board decided to stage all the games at Dambulla, a much drier zone of the country. The Kiwis were certainly not complaining.

Dambulla, a sacred place of Buddhist shrines, rock carvings, and caves, was at the centre of much controversy when an ultra-modern cricket stadium was constructed there in 2000. First, the monks objected to the Stadium being built on their land, and then the Lankan Board and the contractors were involved in a dispute over payments. So, until last year, Dambulla was not a part of an international itinerary, after the inaugural ODI against England.

Thankfully, things have changed for the better and Dambulla is indeed a welcome addition to the cricketing world's spectacular venues. A modern stadium in an ancient land.

Stephen Fleming and his men for sure would carry happy memories of Dambulla. It might have seemed a home away from home. The ball seamed and bounced, and the Kiwis are extremely dangerous in these conditions.

There might have been a change in the script had the final been held at the Premadasa Stadium, for the pitch there has traditionally played slow and low. It is here that the Lankans have a formidable record, especially in Cup finals! The point is, at Dambulla, the Lankans did not even make it to the summit clash.

The Lankan Lion was out of its den, and it ran into big trouble. It was happy hunting for the hard-working Kiwis, who were keen to add an overseas ODI title to their 2000 triumph in the ICC-Knock-out tournament in Nairobi.

Fleming said he was going to take a lot of confidence from the Dambulla win. "As a young group, we have developed in the way we play spin and have stored some knowledge for the tour of India."

His battling 65, when the Kiwis needed 199 in the final, a stiff target by the tournament standards, was a vital contribution in a crunch situation. "I had worked very hard on my game between the round-robin games and this final, and I knew I <147,4,0>had to contribute for us to win." Fleming said.

The final — that was without the super quick Shoaib Akhtar, serving a two-match ban for tampering with the ball during the decisive league game between Pakistan and New Zealand — saw the Pakistanis making 198 for six in 50 overs, after recovering from early blows.

Tuffey, who got his deliveries to seam and bounce, and invariably struck in the first over, removed young opener Mohammed Hafeez, taken by 'keeper Brendon McCullum. Yasir Hameed, with just one match behind him, was trapped leg-before by Kyle Mills, while debutant opener Faisal Akhtar snicked a rising away going delivery from the tall Jacob Oram into McCullum's gloves.

Tottering at 39 for three, Pakistan recovered chiefly through a battling 85-ball 70 from Younis Khan, perhaps technically the most accomplished cricketer in this Pakistani line-up. There were also useful contributions from Yousuf Youhana, Shoaib Malik and Rashid Latif.

Tuffey and Oram picked up three wickets, while Mills, Scott Styris and Daniel Vettori were economical. In fact, this had been an outstanding tournament for Vettori. The left-arm spinner got the ball to turn and bounce, maintained an impeccable line, landed the ball on a consistent length, and brought in subtle variations.

The Kiwis required one substantial knock, which arrived from skipper Fleming's blade, and a few handy efforts, that came from opener Chris Nevin, Scott Styris, and Chris Cairns. Considering the target was not huge, it was enough.

It had been a wonderful team performance from New Zealand in the tournament, with the side being without pace ace Shane Bond, who had had to leave after the first game due to a back strain. But then, the Kiwis do combine well as a unit and Tuffey, Mills and Oram, backed up by Styris, ensured that the Kiwi pace attack filled the rather huge breach caused by Bond's absence.

In a low-scoring tournament, Fleming apart, Styris, McCullum, Nevin and Lou Vincent made crucial runs for the Black Caps' while Tuffey and Vettori, were the outstanding bowlers. Vettori, in particular, was impressive, and his four for 14 off 10 probing overs, not only ambushed the Pakistanis, but put New Zealand in the final. It was a high-quality display by the left-arm spinner, who used the crease extremely well.

To top it all, skipper Fleming, as shrewd as they come, marshalled his resources adeptly and his field placings were both imaginative and effective.

Pakistan, fielding a young side, following the successful experiment in Sharjah, had one significant addition — the controversial Shoaib Akhtar. The team displayed flashes of brilliance. However, the lack of experience apart from the psychological blow of losing Shoaib Akhtar before the final, had an adverse effect on Pakistan.

The key man in the middle order, Yousuf Youhana, had an ordinary tournament, denting Pakistan's chances. Now that he had been punished for his lack of runs in the World Cup, Pakistan would do well to recall the lighter Inzamam-ul-Haq to add weight to the middle order.

Shoaib Malik, developing into a reliable customer in the middle-order, batted with maturity and responsibility in the tournament, while there is unmistakable talent in youngsters such as Mohammed Hafeez. What Pakistan, under a pragmatic captain in Rashid Latif, needs is a blend of experience and youth.

Pakistan's finest moment in the competition arrived when Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammed Sami combined to bundle out New Zealand, coasting at 113 for three while chasing 203, for 181. A duel where Shoaib Malik top-scored with 74, as Pakistan pipped Sri Lanka for a place in the final.

Ironically, this was also a game, in which Akhtar was hauled up for tampering with the ball. After a hearing by Match Referee Gundappa Viswanath, Akhtar, who had already been warned for a similar offence in Zimbabwe this year, was handed a two-match ban.

On the brighter side, Sami's zestful bowling and his ability to shoulder responsibilty augurs well for Pakistan; it was clear that the Pakistani think-tank erred by not fielding this whole-hearted pacemen in the crunch games of the World Cup. Shabbir Ahmed, on a rehabilitation programme after he came under the ICC scrutiny for doubtful action, displayed cleaner methods.

However, the Pakistanis, should have played leg-spinner Danish Kaneria in the tournament. When Kaneria finally received a chance, he did manage to extract turn and bounce.

The Lankans, under a new ODI captain in Marvan Atapattu, and without Old Fox Dav Whatmore as coach, were undone by brittle batting with none getting past the half-century mark in four games. Romesh Kaluwitharana notched up 48, opening the innings against New Zealand, Tillekeratne Dilshan made a match-winning 46 confronting Pakistan, and Mahela Jayawardene scored a battling 38 coping with the Kiwis; there was hardly any other effort worth mentioning. Jayasuriya failed to fire like he normally does at home.

Muttiah Muralitharan, setting aside doubts over his fitness, registered the only five-wicket haul of the competition when he sent the Pakistanis plunging to defeat in the fourth league game, while Prabhath Nissanka, the well-built paceman, operated in a lively fashion.

New Zealand, it was, that clinched it in the end. This indeed was a profitable outing for the Kiwis. First they broke the seven-match losing streak at the hands of the Pakistanis in the league, and then bowled and fielded exceptionally well to take home the Bank Alfalah Cup.

The scores: (All matches at Dambulla). League:

May 10: Pakistan 199 for eight in 50 overs (Mohammed Hafeez 53, Younis Khan 29, Muttiah Muralitharan three for 38) bt Sri Lanka 120 in 43.1 overs (Marvan Atapattu 26, Kumara Sangakkara 29).

May 11: Pakistan 116 in 43.1 overs (Rashid Latif 26, Shoaib Akhtar 27) lost to New Zealand 117 for three in 27.3 overs (Chris Nevin 28, Lou Vincent 25 not out).

May 13: New Zealand 139 in 43.1 overs (Lou Vincent 32, Muttiah Muralitharan three for 16) lost to Sri Lanka 143 for five in 43.4 overs (Sanath Jayasuriya 33, Romesh Kaluwitharana 48, Jacob Oram three for 12).

May 18: Sri Lanka 172 in 49.5 overs (Tillekeratne Dilshan 46, Kumara Dharmasena 26) bt Pakistan 160 in 47.4 overs (Younis Khan 26, Shoaib Malik 33, Muttiah Muralitharan five for 23).

May 19: New Zealand 156 for eight in 50 overs (Scott Styris 29, Brendon McCullum 47 not out) bt Sri Lanka 147 in 49.1 overs (Mahela Jayawardene 38, Daniel Vettori four for 14).

May 20: Pakistan 203 for nine in 50 overs (Yasir Hameed 25, Younis Khan 26, Shoaib Malik 74, Daniel Vettori three for 34) bt New Zealand 181 in 48.1 overs (Chris Nevin 28, Scott Styris 46, Chris Cairns 28, Shoaib Akhtar three for 36, Mohammed Sami three for 34).

Final: May 23: Pakistan 198 for six in 50 overs (Yousuf Youhana 25, Younis Khan 70 not out, Shoaib Malik 34, Daryl Tuffey three for 32, Jacob Oram three for 38) lost to New Zealand 200 for six in 45.2 overs (Stephen Fleming 65, Mohammad Sami three for 42).