Lee gives no leeway

AFTER leading Australia into the final of the ICC World Cup, Ricky Ponting was inclined to look kindly on the St. George's Park pitch at Port Elizabeth.

G. VISWANATH

AFTER leading Australia into the final of the ICC World Cup, Ricky Ponting was inclined to look kindly on the St. George's Park pitch at Port Elizabeth. He was by far the most vocal in being critical of the surface that was prepared for the league match against England and the Super Six fixture against New Zealand. Ponting had said the pitch was not up to the mark and thereafter Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist elaborated on the subject. They said it played slow and low against England and New Zealand. The authorities intervened and did some work on the pitch.

After beating Sri Lanka in the first semifinal, Ponting said: "I think it was a lot better today. It was certainly better than the 212 we made and probably the best of the three we have had here. We knew it was always going to be slow and low. But it was a lot more consistent and a lot harder on top. There was a bit for the fast bowlers there on the pitch. Well, overall a better wicket than we have had before.''

Ponting had no reason to complain after the strong Westerly winds accompanied by rain had brought the match to a halt at 5 p.m. His team was well ahead on the Duckworth and Lewis system at that point of time and an entry into the Cup final was assured. As a batsman the Australian captain had thrown caution to the winds, but as a fielder and a man leading his colleagues on the field, he was par excellence. He once again brought out the best in Brett Lee whose explosive spell dispatched three Sri Lankan batsmen as quickly as possible and cleared the way for Australia.

Coming into the semifinal with nine straight wins, Australia was expected to disregard anomalies in the pitch, apply its mind to the task in hand and trample Sri Lanka. Thankfully, there were a couple of Australian batsmen who were willing to graft for runs which prompted former Australian opener, Keith Stackpole to say: "It is like Test match cricket now.''

Stackpole referred to the batting approach of Darren Lehmann (36, 101m, 66b, 2x4s) and Man of the Match Andrew Symonds (91 not out, 145m, 118b, 7x4, 1x6), which was based on nudges and deflections with the latter cracking the odd ball powerfully on the off side and in front of the wicket. Their partnership for the fourth wicket produced a substantial 93 runs, which ultimately was a little under 50 per cent of the team's total of 212 for seven in 50 overs.

If the Sri Lankans fancied their chances, they were not at all wrong. It was up to the players to grasp the opportunity of being in the semi-final and perform. "Not many players get an opportunity to be in a World Cup semi-final. The boys have played some hard cricket and beaten teams like New Zealand to start with and then West Indies and Zimbabwe,'' the Sri Lankan coach, Dav Whatmore had remarked on the eve of the match.

The 1996 World Cup winner also realised that the best way to play the semi-final was to pack the team with batsmen. Sri Lanka dropped fast bowler Dilhara Fernando and brought back Mahela Jayawardene, which was actually a good move, but one that did not work out well. In the event, though, the batsmen faltered, failing to face Lee with confidence.

The morning session began with a flurry of shots from Adam Gilchrist and the Austra<147,2,1>lian vice-captain leaving the crease despite seeing umpire Rudi Koertzen not awarding a favourable decision to the fielding side following an appeal by Aravinda de Silva and wicketkeeper Kumara Sangakkara. A former Australian opener, who used to open with Ian Redpath, did not agree with Gilchrist's sporting act. "Usually batsmen walk when they have a made a 50 or a hundred,'' he said.

Ponting felt that the umpire had given Gilchrist out. "I was not surprised at that time. I talked to Gilly after that and he said he did not see the umpire say not out. He probably knew that he got a bit of bat on it. He did not look down at the umpire and just walked off. We have not been encouraging to walk, it is all up to them to do what they want.''

After a brisk start, Australia lost Gilchrist, Ponting and Matthew Hayden in under 13 overs before Lehmann and Symonds put on the most crucial partnership of the match. ''It is probably because of practice and assistance from the team that I'm doing well in the tournament,'' said Symonds at the press conference.

A competition like the World Cup provides an opportunity for captains to make their presence felt and grow. Jayasuriya was quick to read the situations and his fine bowling changes were responsible for restricting Australia to 212, the last 10 overs producing only 55 runs and Symonds moving from 65 to 91.

Ponting was asked, considering the fact that Sri Lanka had eight batsmen, if he was confident of defending the small total. ``We thought it could be defended. We have already played two games here and defended small totals. We knew that if we bowled well early with the new ball and got some wickets, we would be in with a chance. We managed to do that. I think it was like a borderline score on that wicket. We kept taking wickets and kept Sri Lanka under pressure.''

The best part of the match came after Symonds had completed another responsible innings for his team. Lee, simply took over from where he had left in Kingsmead. He got some stick from Marvan Atapattu, but blew away three top order batsmen after which Sri Lanka could never really get back on the rails. There were some cheap dismissals, but this was always bound to happen in an intense knock-out match.

This is what Ponting had to say in the end: "I thought we played a very good game. It is disappointing for the spectators. We were far ahead in the Duckworth-Lewis system. The way Andrew and Lehmann approached their partnership really set us up.

They put up a respectable total on the board. And the bowlers did their job very well. It was a very pleasing day for us.'' Ponting also took the opportunity to offer his comments on the outstanding performance by Symonds. "He has been great. The figures show it. He has been positive in his work, he worked hard on his batting and all aspects of his game after his inclusion in the World Cup squad. As he said he is a lot more confident and probably a thinking cricketer than he was in the past. Having had that success in that first game against Pakistan, it has been fairly easier for him.''

The scores:

Australia: A. Gilchrist c Sangakkara b De Silva 22; M. Hayden c Tillekeratne b Vaas 20; R. Ponting c Jayasuriya b Vaas 2; D. Lehmann b Jayasuriya 36; A. Symonds (not out) 91; M. Bevan c Sangakkara b Jayasuriya 0; B. Hogg st. Sangakkara b De Silva 8; I. Harvey c Sangakkara b Vaas 7; A. Bichel (not out) 19; Extras (lb-3, w-3, nb-1) 7; Total (for seven wkts. in 50 overs) 212.

Fall of wickets: 1-34, 2-37, 3-51, 4-144, 5-144, 6-158, 7-175.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 10-1-34-3; Gunaratne-8-0-60-0; De Silva 10-0-36-2; Muralitharan 10-0-29-0; Jayasuriya 10-0-42-2; Arnold 2-0-8-0.

Sri Lanka: M. Atapattu b Lee 14; S. Jayasuriya c Symonds b McGrath 17; H. Tillekeratne c Gilchrist b Lee 3; A. Gunawardene c Ponting b Lee 1; A. De Silva (run out) 11; K. Sangakkara (not out) 39; M. Jayawardene c Gilchrist b Hogg 5; R. Arnold c Lee b Hogg 3; C. Vaas (not out) 21; Extras (b-4, lb-1, nb-2, w-2) 9; Total (for seven wkts. in 38.1 overs) 123.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-37, 3-37, 4-43, 5-51, 6-60, 7-76.

Australia bowling: McGrath 7-1-20-1; Lee 8-0-35-3; Bichel 10-4-18-0; Hogg 10-1-30-2; Harvey 2.1-0-11-0; Lehmann 1-0-4-0.

Australia declared a winner by 48 runs by the Duckworth-Lewis method.