Clinical Australia hold edge over resurgent Lanka

Published: Saturday, April 28, 2007, 0:48 [IST]
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Bridgetown (Barbados):A battle royal is in the offing as defending champions Australia take on charged-up Sri Lanka in the final of the ninth cricket World Cup here at the historic Kensington Oval on Saturday.

The rampaging Australia, who will be playing their fourth final on trot, start favourites on the basis of their form but history favours the Lions who had stunned the Aussies in the 1996 final in Lahore.

Australians do not want to be reminded of history but they are intelligent enough not to forget it too. And to top it, Ricky Ponting is one who remembers his history.

Ponting has a chance to rewrite history on Saturday at the historic Kensington Oval. Australia have been unbeaten in this World Cup so far and Mahela Jayawardene will have his hands full in trying to stop them now.

Ponting has been helped by the attitude of the opposition, as summed up by South Africa's Graeme Smith when he said that the Proteas had done their best, but it had not been good enough. There is almost a fatalistic air on the part of Australia's opponents, one of turning up expecting an inevitable defeat.

However, the Sri Lankans are bit different. The Lions have an assurance and a feeling of compactness missing from most of the other teams in the tournament. As the win over New Zealand in the first semi-final at Sabina Park three days ago suggested, they are close to being at the optimum level now.

To win the title - and that is the name of the game now - any team has to be at not only peak level but go a little further.

Ponting has built a side very much similar to his own image - focused, driven, aggressive and determined. The fact that they are also very good cricketers almost seems to be the icing on the cake for the Aussie skipper.

In Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath, he has the most successful batsman and bowler at this tournament. They have played huge roles in the team's success up to this point, Hayden with his 621 runs and McGrath with his record-breaking 25 wickets.

For a single tournament, these are astonishing figures and go some way in explaining why Australia start the final a few steps ahead of the opposition.

After that, Ponting himself comes, followed by a deeply committed batting lineup that is yet to be tested at this World Cup. Barring the fact that Bangladesh are the only team Australia have not bowled out here - rain reducing the Super Eights game at Antigua to 22-over a side game - and a very good idea of this team's capabilities becomes evident.

No side has survived the full 50 overs against Australia, testifying to the backup McGrath enjoys. Shaun Tait may concede a wide and four byes once in every match but then he also delivers wickets on a regular basis and Ponting has been wise enough to give the tearaway his head and not worry about the extra runs conceded column.

Nathan Bracken and Brad Hogg have complemented these two very well in very contrasting fashion. The former has been among the most economical bowlers at this tournament while Hogg has simply gotten better by the match. Throw in the intense levels the Australians field at, and you have a near-prefect recipe for victory.

But then, Sri Lanka are not here by accident either. They have worked for a long time and are not going to roll over and cave in like South Africa did. Jayawardene's leadership has been exemplary and his trust in a core group unshakable. More importantly, this group is delivering. Not all together yet, may be, but if they do, the Lions could well be unstoppable.

The only game they lost was to Australia in Grenada in the Super Eights, and there was something to benefit from that defeat too. The entire frontline attack was 'rested' and it clearly nettled the Australians.

Ponting has repeated 'ad nauseum' that his side was the big winners on that day and would therefore hold the advantage, etc, etc, but there is no doubt that the Lankans have tweaked their opponent's nose - and made it sting.

Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Vaas and coach Tom Moody are a formidable bunch as a brains trust and not one to miss a trick. They know the jab has found its mark. If it pays off on the big day, the Grenada rout will have been well worth it.

For the Lanka skipper, this is an opportunity to bring his World Cup story full circle. For Muralitharan, this is yet another opportunity to twist the knife where he most loves it.

Significantly, Australia have not played him very often in the recent past. Ponting may say they know his art and abilities well, but Murali will still be something of an enigma for Australia.

World Cup finals are, however, not about one or two players. They are about how teams leverage their strengths to make up for their softer areas, about plans, and executing them, about desire and hard work.

Above all, though, they are about passion and self-belief. The better side on the day will win it. It's just that Australia are already at that level. We have to wait to find out whether the Sri Lankans are too.

In the last match played here, the Kensington Oval threw up a thriller, even if it was a dead game. The pitch for the final too looks to be in top shape and once again, the captain winning the toss will be faced with the dilemma of whether to give its first use to his batsmen, or his bowlers.

Watch out for the mouthwatering battles between the battle-Sanath v McGrath, Murali v Aussie batsmen and the express bowlers concert of Malinga and Tait.

The Teams:

Australia: Ricky Ponting (capt), Adam Gilchrist (wk), Matthew Hayden, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Micheal Hussey, Shane Watson, Brad Hogg, Nathan Bracken, Shaun Tait, Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark, Brad Haddin, Brad Hodge and Mitchell Johnson. Coach: John Buchanan.

Sri Lanka: Mahela Jayawardene (capt), Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Russel Arnold, Chamara Silva, Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga, Dilhara Fernando, Muttiah Muralitharan, Farveez Maharoof, Malinga Bandara, Marvan Atapattu and Nuwan Kulasekara. Coach: Tom Moody.

Umpires: Steve Bucknor (WI), Aleem Dar (Pak), Third Umpire: Rudi Koertzen (RSA) and Reserve Umpire: Billy Bowden (NZ).

Match Referee: Jeff Crowe (NZ).


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