Thrilling till the very end

Spot on. Dilhara Fernando strikes off the last ball, bowling Ravi Bopara, to help Sri Lanka clinch a two-run victory over England.-AP

The Cup needed a regular humdinger: the Sri Lanka-England match delivered it and more. S. Ram Mahesh reports.

It's a measure of how much the World Cup has been undermined from within that patrons and authorities were grateful for the Super Eight match between Sri Lanka and England. Ticket prices, security measures, sparse crowds, India's and Pakistan's exit, shady happenings at the Pegasus Hotel in Jamaica: all had combined to make it a World Cup of stress and struggle.

The joy of playing a simple game seemed to have been lost. The Cup needed a regular humdinger: the Sri Lanka-England match delivered it and more. There were tactical nuances, momentum shifts, personal battles, a last-ball finish with every possibility open till then. And a crowd to lap it up.

The authorities, seeing that no one seemed inclined to buy tickets worth $100, threw open the gates for the second half of the match, ostensibly as a "pre-Easter measure." It can be disputed how many were in the vicinity of the Greenfield Stadium to actually take advantage, but with the Barmy Army, chuffed, re-cheeked, and hoarse, more than making up, it seemed finally that an ODI was underway.

There was, to the match, back-story, which added to an already intriguing contest — one between a side that over-theorises and a side that has over the last season reduced one-day cricket to visceral simplicity.

Sri Lanka's 5-0 defeat of England in England was where Mahela Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan captain, believes his side begun to turn around.

"That was the tour that kicked things off for us," said Jayawardene. "A lot of our youngsters, (Upul) Tharanga and Lasith (Malinga) learnt from it, and grew as cricketers. We wanted to play a lot abroad and win, and this was the beginning."

Soon, Upul Tharanga and Mahela Jayawardene were at the forefront of Sri Lanka's battle of parity with England after England's fast bowlers made good use of a track, which played like a slightly damp strip would early, but looked like no other.

The pitch looked like it was wrapped in cellophane and smoothed over. This peculiar appearance owed itself to peculiar preparation: a heavy mechanised roller had been driven over the track with a sheet of plastic covering it.

Some of the strokes, Tharanga's cut-drive off Flintoff or Jayawardene's lap off Collingwood for instance, were of high skill. But, it was their exceptional running that kept Vaughan off balance. Tharanga and Jayawardene took Sri Lanka to a formidable 160 in the 35th over.

But, Tharanga adventured into a pull and Jayawardene found a man at the boundary, as England scrapped back. Then, Ian Bell conjured up a bit of fielding sleight-of-hand, diving, stopping, and throwing down the non-striker's stumps from a shortish cover to rid England of the dangerous Dilshan.

"We were probably 20 runs short again," said Jayawardene of the 235-run total. "I threw away my wicket. In the last 10 overs we did not capitalise and lost quite a few wickets. We need to iron out all those problems."

Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell had put England in position to chase the target down after the side lost Michael Vaughan and Ed Joyce early. Pietersen stooped into his drives and pulled Malinga. Bell wasn't as thrilling or assured, but he used the cut stroke to good effect. The pair added 90 for the third wicket.

But, Bell was run out in the kind of unfortunate manner that always seems to precipitate a collapse. Pietersen's drive filtered through Jayasuriya's fingers to catch Bell millimetres it seemed above the ground. Pietersen was foxed by a doosra to be caught and bowled just after he had clatteringly swept Muttiah Muralitharan. It had appeared the defining moment.

Well done mate. Muttiah Muralitharan is congratulated by his teammates after he took a splendid return catch to get rid of dangerman Kevin Pietersen.-AP

"He was our star player playing nicely, and their star bowler got him out," said Vaughan. "It was a bitter blow, and at 130 for six, I was thinking it was all over, but the partnership that Ravi and Nixon produced was spectacular. I just wish we'd got over the line."

The partnership was spectacular. For, Paul Nixon and Ravi Bopara played without fuss to woodpecker away at the deficit.

Bopara survived a particularly harrowing time against Muralitharan, and grew in confidence for the experience. "I just had a chat with Nico (Nixon)," said the 21-year-old Bopara. "And we decided six runs an over was tough against the likes of Murali, so we'll score at four or five."

The pair gradually upped the rate. Nixon then did the unthinkable. In the 48th over, Muralitharan's last, the left-hander reverse-smacked a conventional off-break for six. He followed it with a reverse-dab for four. The over leaked 13 and reduced the equation to 19 runs needed off 12 balls.

"Nico plays that shot a lot," said Vaughan. "But, I never thought he'd reverse-sweep Murali for six. That was unbelievable, I mean, reverse-sweeping one of the greatest bowlers that ever lived for six."

But, Lasith Malinga produced a clutch 49th over, one his captain believed "changed the game". He dismissed Nixon, forcing the left-hander to hit a catch to Jayawardene. Only seven runs came off the 49th as the final over — 12 off six — grew in difficulty.

Bopara nervelessly paddled Fernando, who bowled particularly well through the innings, over short fine-leg off the second ball. Matters arranged themselves so that three was needed off the last ball.

Fernando ran up, and aborted. Bopara had edged away to the leg-side. "I don't know what he was doing, didn't really think about it," said Bopara. "Maybe he wanted to see which way I'd go. Whatever, I couldn't stop him from stopping."

Fernando ran in again, Bopara edged away to the leg-side again. The biff over cover was windy; the stumps were disturbed. Fernando had kept his head. Thus ended a match that course-corrected numerous times to get to that defining final over.

THE SCORES

Super Eight: England v Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka won by two runs.

Sri Lanka: U. Tharanga c Pietersen b Flintoff 62; S. Jayasuriya b Mahmood 25; K. Sangakkara c Collingwood b Mahmood 17; M. Jayawardene c Joyce b Collingwood 56; C. Silva b Flintoff 24; T. Dilshan (run out) 5; R. Arnold c Joyce b Mahmood 20; C. Vaas c Collingwood b Flintoff 4; L. Malinga c Nixon b Mahmood 2; M. Muralitharan (not out) 2; D. Fernando (run out) 2; Extras (b-3, lb-5, w-4, nb-4) 16. Total (in 50 overs) 235.

Fall of wkts: 1-37, 2-69, 3-160, 4-175, 5-193, 6-215, 7-219, 8-226, 9-231.

England bowling: Anderson 10-1-39-0; Mahmood 9-0-50-4; Flintoff 10-0-35-3; Collingwood 10-0-44-1; Panesar 8-0-45-0; Vaughan 3-0-14-0.

England: E. Joyce lbw b Malinga 10; M. Vaughan c Sangakkara b Vaas 0; I. Bell (run out) 47; K. Pietersen c & b Muralitharan 58; P. Collingwood lbw b Fernando 14; A. Flintoff c Malinga b Fernando 2; R. Bopara b Fernando 52; P. Nixon c Jayawardene b Malinga 42; S. Mahmood (not out) 2; Extras (b-1, lb-1, w-2, nb-2) 6; Total (for eight wkts., in 50 overs) 233.

Fall of wkts: 1-1, 2-11, 3-101, 4-126, 5-133, 6-133, 7-220, 8-233.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 8-1- 45-1; Malinga 10-1-50-2; Fernando 9-0-41-3; Jayasuriya 8-0-31-0; Dilshan 5-1-16-0; Muralitharan 10-1-48-1.