Bloemfontein: Sri Lanka is banking on star spinner Muthiah Muralitharan for the winning edge when it opens its World Cup campaign against New Zealand on Monday.
The off spinner, rated by cricket's bible Wisden as the best bowler of all-time, is back after a thigh-muscle injury sustained during the recent Australian tour. In a batting-heavy team shorn of quality bowlers, Muralitharan remains the backbone of Sri Lanka's attack with 304 One-day wickets. "It's a big relief for us that Murali is fit again," captain Sanath Jayasuriya said. "His return adds an extra yard to our effort on the field." His New Zealand counterpart Stephen Fleming admitted Muralitharan was the danger man, but said his side was capable of handling the challenge. "We have players who have been around for a long time - it's up to them to deliver," he said. The key Group 'B' match at Goodyear Park will give the winner a huge leap towards the Super Six stage, leaving the loser the task of defeating both South Africa and the West Indies to qualify. These four teams are the main contenders for the three super-six spots from the group, which also includes Kenya, Canada and Bangladesh. "It's good to get a tough match out of the way early," Jayasuriya said. "It helps you to plan things better for the remaining matches." Sri Lanka goes into the World Cup after a string of defeats on recent tours of South Africa and Australia. The Kiwis, on the other hand, are flying high after the 5-2 success against India at home in January.
Sri Lanka, however, enjoy the psychological advantage by winning nine of its last 12 matches against Fleming's team, including a 46-run rout when they last met in the United Arab Emirates 10 months ago. New Zealand has had a better outing in World Cup matches, winning three of its four matches against Sri Lanka, but Jayasuriya was confident his team could change that trend. "We have played well against them in recent times and know their game well," he said.
"But we will be not be foolish to believe that victory will be easy. New Zealand is one of the best sides in the competition and strong contender for the title. We will have to be on our toes all the time." Few will underestimate the Kiwis who are looking for their first World Cup title and having made the semi-finals in two of the previous three tournaments. Fleming, the only captain to survive from the last World Cup in England four years ago, struck form with 122 off 128 balls in a practice match against Gauteng earlier this week. But the Black Caps will miss the bowling power of star all-rounder Chris Cairns, although his hard-hitting batting is a bonus in itself.
Cairns, who has taken 154 One-day wickets for the Black Caps, had almost fully recovered from a knee surgery when a rib injury in his comeback match last month left him unable to bowl. Cairns, with 3,663 One-day runs at a strike rate of 81.43, is worth his place as a specialist batsman alone, and Fleming said the all-rounder was ready to fire. "We will obviously miss his bowling, but Chris is an integral part of our side due to his batting," he said. The fiery Shane Bond and the ever-improving Andre Adams will share the burden of attack against a flamboyant batting line-up that includes veteran Aravinda de Silva, Jayasuriya and Mahela Jayawardena.