Friday, March 25, 2011

One Place Left

Well. South Africa can never resist a good choke. Best not to dwell on it. But that’s what it was. Against an ordinary attack, for Kallis, de Villiers and Duminy to throw away their wickets as they did was nothing less than a choke. AB de Villiers getting run out with the asking rate at 4.5? Ridiculous.

Give New Zealand their dues, Jesse Ryder made sure they reached a defendable total, Nathan McCullum bowled extremely well, and they were superb in the field. The result? A place in the semi-finals against England or Sri Lanka. Some disrespect to New Zealand, but those two teams will be glad to see the back of the Proteas from that side of the draw. How will they deal with each other?

England have played some truly dreadful cricket in this World Cup, but I don’t expect that to trouble them too much in the knockouts. They’re a successful enough team to know that when they’re given a chance, they have to take it, and that’s exactly what they’ll aim for. There have been bright spots in the campaign – Andrew Strauss’s magnificent 158 against India, Swann and Broad’s demolition of the South African middle and lower order to snatch a victory, and Jonathan Trott generally keeping the team alive with consistent performances. In spite of these, however, they just don’t look to have a team that can go the whole way. Tim Bresnan has had good days, but Jimmy Anderson has been awful, and with Stuart Broad and Ajmal Shahzad gone home, their pace bowling is in unknown territory. James Tredwell had a great game against the West Indies, but just how he’ll deal with Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara is a different matter. Graeme Swann will of course be the key, and I expect him to be up to the challenge. The question is, will his teammates give him the support to make it worthwhile?

We believe that Ian Bell has been promoted to open the batting alongside his captain in place of the unimpressive Matt Prior. Bell is as elegant a batsman as has played for England since David Gower, and yet he manages to get out too often for stylish 30s. He hasn’t contributed in a meaningful way in this World Cup yet, and facing the vicious slingers from Lasith Malinga alongside Nuwan Kulasekera’s stingy line-and-length balls isn’t going to make it any easier.

Andrew Strauss needs to front up. Aside from the innings against India, he hasn’t done enough. He leads best from the front, and he knows the pressure’s on. If Malinga is offline, as he can be, Strauss will punish him, but come what may, he needs to be sure that he can last 20 or 30 overs, and build a solid platform for his team.

Once given that platform, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan will be waiting. Both have played important innings in this tournament already, and they will be crucial to England’s hopes. At least one of them needs to be at the crease for the batting powerplay, and at least one of them needs to be there at its conclusion as well. They have the ability to turn 230 into 270, and that’s what will make the difference if Sri Lanka have to rely on a somewhat wobbly lower-middle order in a chase. It looks like Luke Wright will get a game as well, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a waste of a spot. He won’t last against Murali with the bat, and he’ll get carted around with the ball.

Sri Lanka played mostly very good cricket in the group stages. They lost to a very good Pakistan performance, with the main worry being how the middle order would cope with a top order failure. This was somewhat eased in the no-result game against the Aussies, where Thilan Samaraweera, better known for his test batting, produced a very calm and collected innings which set his team up for a total of around 260, which obviously never materialized. Dilshan has been productive, making a couple of 50s and a magnificent hundred to boot. Upul Tharanga has looked good at the top, providing a certain amount of calm to balance the frenetic Dilshan, albeit scoring at a very healthy rate. Once you get the two of them, all you have to deal with is Kumar Sangakkara, aided and abetted by Mahela Jayawardene. Sangakkara has been brilliant so far, finally getting his elusive hundred in the last game. Mahela has been quite quiet after his opening ton, but he’s a big-game player, and expect him to do the job if the scoreboard read 20-2.

Angelo Mathews is already an important player for Sri Lanka, and that will only increase in the years to come. He’s an excellent fielder, and has bowled well in this World Cup. He hasn’t delivered a memorable performance with the bat yet, but he does fulfil the Eoin Morgan role for Sri Lanka. He’ll need to produce a crucial innings if Sri Lanka are to win this World Cup, and where better to begin than tomorrow.

If aspects of their batting are a concern, there is little to trouble Sri Lanka in their attack. They have Lasith Malinga, the toe-crusher extraodinaire. Yes, he can bowl a few “5 wides”, but that’s little consolation when he’s just killed three of your team-mates. They have Muttiah Muralitharan, who’s taken 7 trillion wickets worldwide, and isn’t too generous with the run-rate either. Ajantha Mendis may not be the mystery man he was in the 2009 T20, but he still has enough to bamboozle some of the spin-fearing Englishmen. I personally love watching the oft-unmentioned Nuwan Kulasekara – a couple of years ago he was the number one ranked ODI bowler in the world, and he bowls with an unerring accuracy and consistency that made him truly worthy of that moniker. With Kulaskeara staunching the flow at one end, it makes Malinga and even tougher proposition at the other.

As I said at the top, whoever emerges victorious from this match will fancy their chance against New Zealand, who have made the road to Mumbai a little easier. That said, neither the quarter nor the semi will be a cakewalk, and both these teams will need their whole team to be on form to record a win – neither has India’s luxury of 27 batsmen. I really can’t see England winning – even aside from the poor form, I don’t think that their batsmen have the class to manage Maling in the powerplays and Murali in the middle, and their bowling injuries have left them with an attack which, aside from Graeme Swann, shouldn’t cause too much trouble to the Sri Lankan top 4.

I’m sticking with Sri Lanka to win the tournament outright, and I’m confident they’ll take the next step tomorrow in Colombo.

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