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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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Toss up between Kiwi elan and Lankan acumen

By S. Dinakar

COLOMBO, JULY 30. Like the proverbial phoenix, India, on occasions, needs to burn itself to fly again, and the country's stirring victory over Sri Lanka on Saturday, that was preceded by three shattering setbacks, has done much to infuse life into the competition.

The cricket caravan now moves to the Sinhalese Sports Club ground for the final league phase of the Coca Cola triangular one-day competition. It promises to be interesting.

The decisive round of matches will be kicked off with a meeting between Sri Lanka and New Zealand on Tuesday, an encounter, that will have a bearing on India's prospects.

A New Zealand victory could make things tougher for the Indians, for even if they manage to win the final two games, it will boil down to the run-rate.

In this scenario, India (two points from four games) with a net- run rate of -0.69 as against New Zealand's +0.63 and Sri Lanka's +O.05, has a lot more running to do. The Kiwis have four points from four matches, and the Lankans, six from four.

On Saturday, Lanka could have ensured its ticket to the final, but the team was ambushed by a rejuvenated India. Still the host is rather comfortably placed.

Coach Dav Whatmore attributed Sri Lanka's defeat to a sense of complacency that had crept into the side following three successive wins, and admitted that his the batsmen did not quite reveal the right shot-selection.

He would certainly not want a repeat of the dramatic Lankan collapse when the side lost its last eight wickets for just 40 runs enabling India to gain a vice-like grip over the proceedings.

Truth to tell, the Lankan batting has resembled a curate's egg, brilliant one moment, dismal the next. And talented middle-order batsman Mahela Jayawardene's form or the lack of it is a major problem area for Whatmore.

Occupying the crucial No. 4 slot, Jayawardene has perished to some forgettable shots, hardly doing justice to his ability as a natural strokemaker who can turn a game on its head.

The Lankan think-tank believes Jayawardene will fight his way out of this crisis point. ``Everyone goes through a rough patch. He is a quality player,'' pointed out Whatmore. At the SSC, Jayawardene might have one more opportunity to get back on the road again, selectors willing.

The Lankan think-tank took flak in certain quarters for sending in Chaminda Vaas as a pinch hitter against India, ahead of the in-form Suresh Perera, the logical choice if the idea was to speed up the run-rate that was hovering around four at the 30- over mark.

Whatmore defended the action saying there were two left-arm spinners-Yuveraj Singh and Hemang Badani-in operation at that point, and hence the left-handed Vaas was promoted ahead of Perera.

The elevation of Vaas also meant the much talked about Kumara Sangakkara, in the side as a specialist batsman at the expense of Avishka Gunawardene, hardly received his fair share of overs to face. Whatmore has won several tactical battles on the field, and this was one of those rare occasions when his gamble came unstuck.

At the top of the order, Romesh Kaluwitharana appeared comfortable as Jayasuriya's partner, and the revival of this explosive opening pair could spell danger to any side. The two do relish batting together.

The wicket at the SSC might be harder-the bounce should be true though-than the ones at the Premadasa Stadium and this suggests Vaas, Perera and Dilhara Fernando might receive some encouragement.

And Muttiah Muralitharan is always going to be a factor, especially against the Kiwis.

Even while acknowledging the wizardry of Murali, it is only fair if we take a look at his off-spin partner Kumara Dharmasena.

Dharmasena is not in the league as Murali, yet is a very useful performer in limited overs cricket.

He operates to a middle-and-leg line, bowls to his field, doesn't allow the batsmen to get under the ball for the big hits and brings in a lot of experience to the side.

Fleming back in team

The Kiwis will have their skipper Stephen Fleming back for the match-he has recovered from the stomach upset-and that should strengthen the top half of the batting although beefy all-rounder Jacob Oram did not perform such a bad job when he was promoted to the No. 3 slot.

Fleming should replace either Oram or middle-order batsman Lou Vincent whose value to the side is more due to his razor sharp reflexes on the field than any significant contribution with the willow.

New Zealand would be hoping for a scintillating innings from strokeful opener Nathan Astle, a match-winner. We don't have to look beyond his wonderful 117 against India-the only century in the competition so far-to see the point. If he comes good, the Kiwis invariably win.

In the pace-bowling front, Darryl Tuffey and Kyle Mills have secured the early breakthroughs, yet the key player is comeback- man Dion Nash, a slippery bowler if ever there was any. He has the habit of picking crucial wickets-not to forget his contribution with the bat-and he does add much depth and options to the Kiwi line-up.

Nash's fitness is being assessed on a day-to-day basis. Though there might be an element of doubt about his availability for the match, the chances are that the Kiwis would have this industrious cricketer for this important duel.

In the spin bowling department, left-armer Daniel Vettori and leggie Chris Harris have enjoyed themselves on the Lankan wickets, and Harris is among the most useful customers in this form of the game. And, as always, the New Zealanders are expected to give little away on the field with men like Harris on the prowl.

The Kiwis had the Lankans on the mat the last time around before Marvan Atapattu, Russell Arnold and Suresh Perera fashioned a famous victory. This time though, Fleming, who feels New Zealand has been the most consistent batting side in the tournament, would love nothing more than closing out the contest from a similar situation.

However, the `Big Question' is, will the Lankans allow the Kiwis to get to a dominant position again.

The teams:

Sri Lanka (from): Sanath Jayasuriya (captain), Romesh Kaluwitharana, Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene, Russell Arnold, Kumara Sangakkara, Suresh Perera, Kumara Dharmasena, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Dilhara Fernando, Avishka Gunawardene, Chamara Silva, Dulip Liyanage and Dinusha Fernando. Coach: Dav Whatmore.

New Zealand (from): Stephen Fleming (captain), Nathan Astle, Mathew Sinclair, Craig McMillan, Jacob Oram, Chris Harris, Adam Parore, Dion Nash, Daniel Vettori, Darryl Tuffey, Kyle Mills, Lou Vincent, Grant Bradburn and James Franklin. Coach: David Trist.

Umpires: Mr. Wijewardene and Mr. Pathirana. Third umpire: Mr. Asoka de Silva. Match referee: Mr. Cammie Smith.

Hours of play (IST): 9.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. & 1.45 p.m. till the end of play.

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