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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The World Cup finals

Finally, there are 2 teams standing at the top of the heap (16 countries). Did anyone else deserve to be here? The answer is a resounding NO. There is a streak of ruthlessness displayed by both these countries, in a way that is unique to the way each play their cricket . The Aussies have been more ruthless than the Sri Lankans - not dropping a single match on their way to the finals. They have bowled out all their opposition with ease. They have, to use the correct word, bullied the other countries in their encounters. Sri Lanka have lost 2 matches so far in this World Cup - one to the Aussies (with 3 of their strike bowlers missing in the line-up) and the other narrowly to South Africa.

It is a coincidence that in the last 4 World Cups, not only has Australia been the common thread - but a country from the sub-continent has reached the finals also (in fact, that trend has occured last 5 World Cups). Sri Lanka reached the finals in 1996 and 2007, Pakistan in 1992 and 1999, India in 2003. 1996 also marks the last time Australia lost in the finals of a World Cup. Australia would be the favorites to get a hat-trick of World Cup wins under their belt. Sri Lanka would have to play out of their skins to snatch it from the Aussies. But they have the potential to do it, and the form.

How does it look for the 2 teams, in comparison to each other? Lets look at the bowling attack first.

A strike-bowler who has reduced in pace, but still is accurate enough to pick bagful of wickets. With the wicket-keeper standing up, the bowler doesnt give enough opportunities to the opposition to step out and negotiate the swing. Who is this? It could be Glenn Mcgrath or Chaminda Vaas. Vaas has been behind Mcgrath in the wicket-count but nobody can beat him when his swing is on song.

A sling-bowler who has not only the license to take wickets but also to go all out to attack the
opposition batsmen (wides and no-balls for him are forgiven by the captain). Again, it is Shaun Tait or Lasith Malinga. If its 23 wickets in 10 matches for Tait, its 16 in 7 matches for Malinga.
20 wickets in 10 matches for Brad Hogg whereas the numbers read 23 in 9 for Murali. Both these bowlers have lapped up the slow conditions on offer during this World Cup to ensure that the Aussies dont loosen the noose during the middle phase.

Nathan Bracken has also taken 15 wickets in his 9 matches with an economy rate of 3.41. In fact, he has ensured that the opening pair has never got to a good start against the Aussies. Sri Lanka dont have a similar bowler in their lineup. It looks like Maharoof (who has taken 9 wickets in his 6 matches) will come in place of Dilahara Fernando, who clearly struggled in the semi-finals.

That leaves the fifth-bowlers slot. The Aussies can look at Shane Watson, Andy Symonds, Michael Clarke to bowl the 10 overs between them, depending on the conditions available - whether it suits pace or spin. The Lankans depend on Jayasuriya, Dilshan, Arnold. If the pitch is slow and low, these bowlers would be more than a handful.

Looking at the batting strength, again on paper, the Aussies seem to be ahead of the Lankans.

Matt Hayden is the biggest bully in the Aussie batting lineup - chalking up 600+ runs so far. Sri Lanka would love to have Sanath Jayasuriya (400+ runs) emulate Hayden during the finals. But, if the Lankans want to restrict the damage done by Hayden, they have to get him out, quickly that is. Swing seems to be one way to get the Aussies out. That is where the Lankans would do well to get Maharoof back in the team.

Gilchrist has been quiet in comparison (300+ runs) but has ensured that the Aussies always get off to a flier. Last few innings, he has shown his weakness to the incoming ball. This might be something that Vaas should target. Tharanga (nearly 300 runs) of the Lankans had a lean patch going, until the semi-finals. If he can retain his show in the finals alongwith Jayasuriya, we could have a show on hand.

Ponting has been also among the runs (500+ runs) and his wicket has been the most sought-after for a long period now. His preference to fall over while playing on the on-side is a route that the Lankans should target. Sangakkara (nearly 300 runs) has also struggled with his form in the tournament. The finals would be an ideal platform for him to come into form.

Clarke has also accumulated runs in this tournament in his usual manner (400+ runs). Jayawardane from the Lankans has the 2nd highest runs (500+ runs) in the tournament. His captaincy has been quite good in the tournament.

Hussey and Symonds have not done anything spectacular so far. Chamara Silva (300+ runs), Dilshan and Arnold also have had their successes on some days only. Will they have a big role to play?

So, what should Sri Lanka do to stop the Aussies? They have to go back to 1996 to get their
confidence boosted - reassuring that it can be done again. They should look at opening their bowling with say, Arnold and Vaas. This will put the Aussies off-guard and they would try to do something foolish.

The toss will also prove vital. If there is help in the pitch for seam and swing, whoever bats first would do well to preserve their wickets in the beginning and ensure that they come in handy for the slog overs. That is probably what the Proteans did not realize during their semi-finals loss. Ensure that wickets are retained during the first 20 overs atleast, even if the run-rate is around 4 runs per over.

Murali, Jayasuriya, Dilshan and Arnold are the key components of the Lankan spin-bowling attack while Vaas, Malinga and Maharoof offer the variety in pace. Against Australia, it is a good idea for the spinners to bowl atleast 75% of the quota. It would be the only way to restrain them from a 300+ score.

How Jayasuriya fares against Mcgrath and Tait would be crucial as well. If he can get the Lankans off to a flier, the Aussies will be under pressure. If the Lankans win the toss, bat first
and put a total of around 250 - their slow bowlers will ensure that the Aussie batting comes under pressure. But, it is easier said than done. All in all, it is set for a fascinating battle.

May the Best Team win.
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