Wet weather the winner

S. DINAKAR

LIKE cricket, the weather is a great leveller. We can have days of clear blue sky, bright sunshine and yet, when it really matters, nature can play the spoilsport.

In a season where it normally rains in Colombo, we had 14 days of uninterrupted cricket in the ICC Champions Trophy. And then, when the hour of reckoning arrived - the decisive match of the competition was on a razor's edge - the dark, grey clouds opened up, and the groundstaff, covers, and super sopper took over from the booming strokes and the spinning ball.

'Rain, rain go away' was the chorus at the Premadasa Stadium. But the rain spoilt the show on both the day of the final and the reserve day, soon after India had begun its run-chase.-N. BALAJI

For a tournament that had produced engrossing action, this was a pity. Yet, that's the way it sometimes goes...in cricket.

In the final on September 29, India had rallied well to restrict Sri Lanka to 244 after the home side had got off to a flier, before a heavy downpour permitted only two overs in the Indian innings.

And in the replayed final the following day, the Indian bowlers struck early, maintained the pressure for most part, and the home team's 222 for seven in 50 overs was well within India's compass even on a slow Premadasa pitch providing assistance to the spinners.

If it began raining after two overs in the first game, the weather gods waited just a little longer in the second match...till the ninth over.

This also meant the Asian neighbours shared the ICC Champions Trophy apart from splitting the $ 300,000 prize money. It was a watery end to a tournament that had thrown up a fair share of excitement.

The two captains' remarks after the reserve final, reflected their mood. "It's disappointing, more so in the second final, since we had only 223 to get," noted Sourav Ganguly.

Zaheer Khan is being congratulated by his team-mates for his first-ball dismissal of Sanath Jayasuriya in the replayed final.-N. BALAJI

On a surface where the ball was not quite coming on, where strokemaking was difficult, Sanath Jayasuriya felt his side had a chance too. "We were looking at a target between 225 and 240, on this wicket," he said.

However, deep down, Jayasuriya must have known that anything below 250 would be dangerous against the Indians, possessing, probably, the strongest batting line-up in one-day cricket.

The rule that an incomplete match would have to be played afresh on the reserve day also needs to be reviewed. If the game was being held on the same pitch, then why not resume the contest from the point of interruption on the previous day?

Had that happened, we would had a single winner, which is how it should be. Instead, we had the Indians - Ganguly lost the toss on both occasions - fielding for 100 overs in two successive days, that would have left them exhausted when they went in to bat on the second day.

The expectations from the final were high and there were people surfacing from everywhere as we made our way to the stadium. Though the Lankan supporters carrying their National flag were prominent, there were some Indian fans as well, their faces painted in tricolour.

And as Zaheer Khan got ready to send down the first ball of the summit clash, it was in front of a packed crowd. The atmosphere was just right for the big game.

Zaheer's partner for this crunch game was senior paceman Javagal Srinath, who had replaced an injured Ashish Nehra. The left-armer had split a webbing in his bowling hand during that dramatic semifinal against South Africa and Srinath had flown in to Colombo as a cover for the injured bowler.

Srinath had made himself available for selection in the ODIs even as he bid adieu to Tests, but the selectors had so far stubbornly ignored the claims of the senior paceman. Yet, when Srinath received the National call he had to fly in all the way from London - he is representing Leicestershire in the English county - and landed in the Lankan capital just 10 hours before the start of the game.

He appeared, tired, jaded and went for runs, yet one could sympathise with Srinath's plight; he had little time to recover physically from an exhausting journey.

This pull by Aravinda de Silva off Anil Kumble ended up as a catch in Mohammed Kaif's hands in the replayed final.-N. BALAJI

However, the good news is that the paceman has decided to come out of his retirement in Tests, and it was a visibly pleased Ganguly who first broke the news to the media during the pre-match press conference at the Premadasa Stadium.

It was Zaheer who demanded attention among the Indian pacemen in both the finals, bowling an attacking off-stump line and making the batsman play - the first ball dismissal of Sanath Jayasuriya in the replayed final when the Sri Lankan captain pushed forward gingerly before playing on illustrated just this.

Zaheer kept the heat on the batsmen, shifted his line to the left-handers with ease, and responded to his captain's call in the middle and the end overs - Ganguly tended to use Zaheer in three or four spells.

He ran in aggressively, bowled at a sharp pace, achieved some movement and gave it his all, even on the Khetterama wicket that did not hold much for the pacemen.

Harbhajan Singh, with his off-spin, was exceptional too, in both the finals. He operated quite beautifully, using the crease well, never hesitating to flight the ball, and seldom straying in length or direction. He was particularly impressive in the first final, when he had the Sri Lankans, who are fine players of spin - they have the opportunity to hone their skills against Muttiah Muralitharan in the nets - in two minds.

The home batsmen were not quite sure whether to go after the Sardar or play him out. In the end it was Harbhajan who emerged a winner, picking three for 27 in his 10 overs. Lanka had got off to a fine start and it was Harbhajan, who, striking crucial blows, had pushed back the run-rate.

In fact, in the first final, India committed the folly of going into the match with three pacemen and this meant Virender Sehwag would have to bowl his full quota of overs. Sehwag, with his quicker-through-the-air variety, is a handy off-spinner in the ODI arena, and he provided Harbhajan the much-needed support.

Harbhajan Singh runs out Kumar Sangakkara. This dismissal was also in the replayed final.-N. BALAJI

The Lankan innings revolved on a 89 ball-74 from Jayasuriya and it was not a typically blazing effort from the skipper; the slowness in the pitch forced him to be more circumspect. And Kumara Sangakkara, at No. 3, too came up with a patient hand, his hard-earned 54 consuming 89 balls; there was a feeling in the Lankan camp, that he was not able to force the pace against the off-spinners.

In the replayed final, Mahela Jayawardene's exquisite 77 (99b) and his 118-run partnership in 173 balls with Russel Arnold rescued Sri Lanka from a precarious 71 for four. Jayawardene is a classy little batsman, with quick hands and feet and a fine sense of timing.

Arnold, the kind of player who likes the sniff of a battle, remained unbeaten on a patient 56 (101 balls) and the Lankans, after losing their skipper to the first ball of the match, had at least given themselves some chance with a score of 222 for seven. There were frayed tempers on view too, with Ganguly and Arnold getting into an altercation, forcing the intervention of umpires David Shepherd and Steve Bucknor. Cricket can do without moments like these.

Realising their mistake regarding the composition of the attack, the Indians went back to two specialist spinners, which meant leg-spinner Anil Kumble, two short of 300 ODI victims, replaced the unfortunate Srinath in the XI.

The leg-spinner picked up his 299th scalp, but not before Aravinda de Silva, playing his last innings in Sri Lanka, had whipped up magic by slamming Ajit Agarkar for five boundaries in one over - easily the high point of the contest.

This was riveting strokeplay, and De Silva looked good for many, many, more when he fell miscuing a pull sweep off Kumble. However, this was a day, when wicket No. 300 eluded the Karnataka leggie.

Harbhajan gives Aravinda de Silva the marching orders in the final on September 29.-N. BALAJI

Both the duels witnessed interesting strategic battles. India had Dinesh Mongia in as opener - skipper Ganguly wanted to bat in the middle-order since with his experience, and expertise against spin, he could handle Muttiah Muralitharan that much better. The off-spin wizard, unlike most bowlers of his ilk, prefers operating to the right handers, since he can take the ball away and straighten it into them.

Sachin Tendulkar had told the media earlier, that if given a choice he would prefer to open, but Ganguly was firm that the team's interests were better served with the batting maestro walking in at No. 4.

And Jayasuriya opened with Kumara Sangakkara in the second match; the feeling was that the right-handed Marvan Atapattu could score more freely off the Indian off-spinners. Without taking into account the success or the failures of the methods, it was good to see both the sides putting their thinking caps on. Cricket is as much a battle of wits as of skill.

However, the Indian fielding and catching - the super quick and sharp Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh were welcome exceptions - could have been much better, and there is room for improvement in the running between the wickets.

In the short Indian innings on both the days, Virender Sehwag sparkled with his explosive strokes and it was fitting that the final ball of the Champions Trophy tournament witnessed an audacious blow from Sehwag's blade...a six over point off Chaminda Vaas. Then it started raining again!

Final (Sept. 29). The scores:

Sri Lanka: S. Jayasuriya c Harbhajan b Agarkar 74; M. Atapattu c Agarkar b Harbhajan 34; K. Sangakkara c Sehwag b Harbhajan 54; A. De Silva c Dravid b Harbhajan 18; M. Jayawardene c & b Tendulkar 13; R. Arnold (not out) 18; C. Vaas (not out) 11. Extras: (b-6, lb-8, w-8) 22. Total (for five wkts. in 50 overs) 244.

Fall of wickets: 1-65, 2-155, 3-185, 4-207, 5-212.

India bowling: Zaheer 10-0-43-0, Srinath 8-0-55-0, Agarkar 6-0-37-1, Harbhajan 10-1-27-3, Sehwag 10-0-32-0, Tendulkar 6-0-36-1.

India: D. Mongia (not out) 1; V. Sehwag (not out) 13. Total (for no loss in two overs) 14.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 1-1-0-0, Gunaratne 1-0-14-0.

Replayed final (Sept. 30). The scores:

Sri Lanka: S. Jayasuriya b Zaheer 0; K. Sangakkara (run out) 26; M. Atapattu c Mongia b Agarkar 10; A. De Silva c Kaif b Kumble 27; M. Jayawardene c Ganguly b Zaheer 77; R. Arnold (not out) 56; U. Chandana c Kaif b Harbhajan 1; C. Vaas c Kumble b Zaheer 17; M. Muralitharan (not out) 0. Extras: (nb-1, w-7) 8. Total (for seven wkts. in 50 overs) 222.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-24, 3-63, 4-71, 5-189, 6-193, 7-215.

India bowling: Zaheer 9-1-44-3, Agarkar 5-1-36-1, Harbhajan 10-0-34-1, Kumble 10-1-41-1, Sehwag 8-0-31-0, Tendulkar 8-0-36-0.

India: D. Mongia c Jayawardene b Vaas 0; V. Sehwag (not out) 25; S. Tendulkar (not out) 7. Extras (b-1, nb-4, w-1) 6. Total (for one wkt. in 8.4 overs) 38.

Fall of wicket: 6.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 4.4-1-24-1, Fernando 4-0-13-0.