Turning the clock back

S. DINAKAR

AT the pre-match press conference, Ricky Ponting dismissed speculations that the Champions Trophy semifinal might go the way of the 1996 World Cup final at Lahore, where the Lankan off-spinners strangulated the Aussie batsmen. "That was six years ago, if they want to take that with them... well."

The overambitious Matthew Hayden falls to the deceptive off-spin of Aravinda de Silva, who is congratulated (below) by his joyous team-mates.-N. BALAJI

The Australians were confident going into the last four duel against the host. They had been on a roll, had been winning with ease, and the confidence level in the team was high.

The side had probably the most explosive opening pair in Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, a talented middle-order headed by the captain himself, and a bunch of outstanding fast bowlers - Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee - and the world's finest leg-spinner, Shane Warne.

It was a formidable side, yet, in a high pressure game, would it miss the Waugh brothers, who with their experience could have been a handful for their opponents.

The Lankans believed they could make it to the final too. After all, the match was being played in their bastion - the Premadasa Stadium - and they knew the conditions like the back of their hand.

The Lankans also knew that they would have to enter the big game with a clear-cut strategy. Against the World Champion, a superior side, the methods they were going to adopt would have to be water tight.

N. BALAJI

And the Lankans had zeroed in on the way to success - it would be a spin trap. In other words, the Australians would have to be ambushed.

The Australia - Sri Lanka rivarly has been a rather old and bitter one, and given the fact that the Aussies are not always popular in this part of the world, it promised to be a high voltage duel, with no quarter asked for and, none given.

Sri Lanka had the home advantage, the crowd would be behind it, yet, it was carrying the burden of expectations as the host nation. There was that much more pressure on Sri Lanka.

Jayasuriya, taking part in the biggest ever cricketing show in Lanka, despite not quite recovering completely from his injured shoulder, denied there was any pressure on his team, but one could sense it.

Even as we made our way to the venue on September 27, the Sri Lankan flags were visible everywhere, the home supporters were buoyant, and there was a huge crowd at the Premadasa Stadium, to witness what most believed would be an engrossing contest.

Aussies bite the dust: Shane Warne is stumped by Kumar Sangakkara off Muthiah Muralitharan.-N. BALAJI

The Australians won the toss, and Hayden and Gilchrist were soon doing what they knew best - dismantling the opposition attack. Gilchrist was the first off the blocks this time, cutting and off-driving Chaminda Vaas and pulling Pulasthi Gunaratne. Hayden, too was gradually beginning to assert himself.

The Lankans had anticipated the early onslaught and shrewdly introduced the off-spin of Kumara Dharmasena and Aravinda de Silva. The Lankans realised the pacemen would come under the hammer from the Aussie openers and the spin option with a ball that was still only five overs old was a well thought-out one.

"I wanted to start with spin straightaway, but decided to give Vaas and Pulasthi a few overs at the beginning," revealed Jayasuriya later. In fact, the original Lankan plan was to begin with Muttiah Muralitharan, but the think-tank gave up the idea since in the unlikely prospect of the off-spin wizard being punished, the Aussies would gain a huge psychological advantage. It was too big a risk to take.

Instead, we had Dharmasena and Aravinda coming early on. They were two of the bowlers - Muralitharan being the third - who had put the brakes on the Australians in the 1996 final. And, here, they were, in the thick of things again.

Darren Lehmann is run out.-N. BALAJI

The tactics worked like magic for the Lankans. Hayden and Gilchrist fell to indiscreet strokes - Hayden stepped down to Aravinda and saw his stumps being rearranged and Gilchrist holed out to cover, attempting to strike Dharmasena over the top. From 46 for no loss in 41 balls, the Aussies now were 49 for two. From here on, it was a totally different ball game.

Aravinda bowled an impeccable line, gave very little away, Dharmasena played his part well and the Aussie middle order was under considerable stress. It crumbled.

Jayasuriya wisely gave Vaas a brief second spell, and the hard-working left-arm paceman won a leg-before appeal against Ponting. It was back to spin from both ends.

Brett Lee falls to Sanath Jayasuriya.-N. BALAJI

Unable to find the singles, Damien Martyn and Darren Lehmann perished to run-outs - it was the pressure created by the Lankans that forced them to take the risk.

Under the situation, much depended on the left-handed Michael Bevan, but when he fell to an injudicious sweep stroke, which had the Aussies tottering at 97 for six the writing was on the wall for Ponting's men.

And when Muralitharan started to get the ball to spin viciously, all escape routes were cut for the Aussies. Shane Warne battled with the willow, top-scored with 36, and it was basically his resistance, that enabled Australia to last till the fourth delivery of the 48th over, before a sharp off-break from Muralitharan castled Glenn McGrath.

The Sri Lankans were always going to get 163 in 50 overs, and though McGrath and Warne bowled quite superbly, the Lankans had little difficulty in reaching the target with 10 overs to spare. Jayasuriya played some spanking strokes on way to 42, Marvan Atapattu - dropped thrice, twice by Hayden in a Warne over - managed to get 51, and No. 3 Kumara Sangakkara chipped in with 48. The Australians had been humbled by seven wickets.

The scores:

Australia: A. Gilchrist c Atapattu b Dharmasena 31; M. Hayden b Aravinda de Silva 13; R. Ponting lbw b Vaas 3; D. Martyn (run out) 28; D. Lehmann (run out) 0; M. Bevan c Arnold b Dharmasena 12; S. Watson c Jayasuriya b Muralitharan 7; S. Warne st. Sangakkara b Muralitharan 36; B. Lee b Jayasuriya 18; J. Gillespie (not out) 2; G. McGrath b Muralitharan 0. Extras (b-10, lb-1, w-1) 12. Total (in 48.4 overs) 162.

Fall of wickets: 1-49, 2-49, 3-56, 4-57, 5-96, 6-97, 7-107, 8-153, 9-162.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 7-2-31-1, Gunaratne 2-0-15-0, Dharmasena 10-1-30-2, Aravinda de Silva 10-2-16-1, Muralitharan 9.4-0-26-3, Chandana 7-0-22-0, Jayasuriya 3-0-11-1.

Sri Lanka: S. Jayasuriya b Warne 42; M. Atapattu lbw b McGrath 51; K. Sangakkara c Gilchrist b McGrath 48; A. De Silva (not out) 2; M. Jayawardene (not out) 1. Extras (b-4, lb-2, nb-6, w-7) 19. Total (for three wkts. in 40 overs) 163.

Fall of wickets: 1-67, 2-142, 3-160.

Australia bowling: McGrath 10-1-41-2, Gillespie 8-1-28-0, Warne 10-2-25-1, Lee 7-1-39-0, Lehmann 5-0-24-0.

CRICKET is full of surprises, and here was another one. The odds on Aravinda de Silva bagging a Man of the Match award purely for his bowling, on a turning track, in a side boasting of Muttiah Muralitharan, would have been extremely low.

Yet, it was Aravinda who was named the player of the second semifinal for his spell of 10-2-16-1, against a mighty Australian side, that had set its eyes on the final. Figures that would do any specialist spinner proud.

But then, Aravinda is a natural. With the willow, he is among the finest strokemakers to emerge from the sub-continent over the last 20 years, a batsman of impeccable technique and a wide range of strokes.

Yet, when Jayasuriya threw the ball to his longstanding friend and team-mate, in the cauldron of the Cup semifinal at the Premadasa Stadium, he knew Aravinda was a man who could deliver.

There is something about match-winners that travels beyond the normal parameters of a cricketer's ability. These special men can produce that little extra that so often separates the champions from the lesser men.

The Aussies were running hot when Aravinda was introduced into the attack. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden had put the pacemen to the sword, and Aravinda was given the specific job of checking the flow of runs.

He did more than that. Matt Hayden's eyes lit up when he saw Aravinda's occasional spin... the big-built southpaw jumped out and missed the line of a delivery that spun in just a shade, and moments later he was on his way back.

It was an afternoon where Aravinda, quicker through the air, and cramping the batsmen around the off-stump, bowled over after over of nagging off-spin, with a single saving field - a short cover, a short mid-wicket, a short fine-leg, and a short third man - to back him. The margin for error was less, but Aravinda rarely strayed in length or direction.

The memories of World Cup '96, where Australia had been stopped in its tracks by Aravinda's off-spin came flooding back. Six years had gone by, Aravinda was now on the verge of retirment, yet little had changed, at least against the Aussies in an ODI scenario.

Aravinda's was a special performance and there was a big hand for him from the crowd at the Premadasa Stadium, when he completed his 10th over.

He walked back to his spot at midwicket a proud man. On a day when the Lankan Lions triumphed, Aravinda, the big cat in a small frame, did roar.