A thoroughly professional performance, with both bat and ball, by India brought Sri Lanka to the brink of elimination from the World Cup.
Actually, the result -- India winning by a massive margin of 183 runs -- could bring up some interesting possibilities for the semifinals, but time enough for that later.
Lanka -- with Sanath Jayasuriya clearly below par following the injury to his thumb sustained during the previous game against Australia -- went in to the game with a few changes.
Hashan Tillekeratne, also injured in the match against Australia, sat out and the young all rounder Jehan Mubarak came into the side, in the pivotal number three position. Pulasthi Gunaratne yielded place, on form, to Prabhat Nissanka. Meanwhile, India opted to go in with an unchanged eleven.
The first surprise came before the match actually began -- Sanath Jayasuriya won the toss, and on a track that was quite good for batting, opted to bowl first. The decision clearly indicated that he had little faith in his batting lineup's ability to put up an imposing total, and pinned his hopes, as he reasoned at the toss, on his quick bowlers taking out two or three quick wickets and getting India on the defensive early on.
In this context, it is interesting to note that this game was played on the same Wanderer's pitch on which Pakistan's quicks had reduced Australia, in the preliminary league, to 86/4 before first Ponting, then Symonds, batted their way to a mammoth 310.
India opened with Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag -- and the two put on a classical opening partnership characterized by controlled aggression. There was none of the frenetic hitting on view against England and Pakistan, no sign of urgent intent. Instead, both batsmen, right from the outset, focused on treating the good deliveries with respect while giving the bad deliveries the treatment.
It is a reflection of the Sri Lankan support bowlers that India cruised along to 70/0 after ten overs. Vaas as always was outstanding in line and length (8-1-24-0 in his first spell) but Nissanka, a tall lad with a very good high arm action, gave it away. Against two batsmen who drive with conviction and play brilliantly off their pads, he kept straying either onto the fuller length or onto the pads, and was punished (4-1-33-0).
That opened up immediate problems for Jayasuriya, who was forced to bring on his third seamer, Dilhara Fernando, in the 10th over. In a move reminiscent of Sehwag's assault on Waqar Younis when the Pakistan captain replaced Shoaib Akthar in an earlier match, Tendulkar took it on himself to go after Fernando, blasting a no ball over the point boundary for six. Fernando started with an eight ball over that went for 11 runs, and conceded another 8 in his next over -- and the problems intensified.
Through the first 12 overs, Tendulkar was the aggressor while Sehwag played well within himself, getting right behind the line in almost a studied fashion, playing the forward and backward defensive shots that no one suspected was part of his batting lexicon. (Interestingly, this morning's newspapers produced an article from Michael Holding suggesting that Sehwag was clearly over-rated; it also produced a column by Bob Woolmer suggesting that all the batsman had to do was spend some time in the middle -- apparently Sehwag listened to the latter in a bid to prove the former wrong).
Here, with his head firmly down -- expect when he was having animated conversations with his batting partner after almost every ball -- Sehwag buckled down to the job, and left the derring-do to Tendulkar. It was a cultured defensive knock, punctuated by cover, off and straight drives and the odd vicious cut off the back foot. His best shot, though, was a flat, crackling square cut played off the toes, that rocketed at head height over point and cleared the point boundary at that same height -- an amazing flat hit characterized by power and timing.
Tendulkar opted to take most of the strike during this period, as evidenced by the fact that he got to his 50 in the 17th over (60 deliveries) whereas Sehwag, who played out two maiden overs (the 13th and 15th), got to his own 50 only in the 24th over, while using only 66 balls to get there.
India's progression tells the story of the partnership: 28/0 in 5, 70/0 in 10, 84/0 in 15, 110/0 in 20, 136/0 in 25.
Jayasuriya, judging by the gingerly fashion in which he fielded, was clearly still feeling the effects of his injury -- which made his captaincy doubly interesting. In earlier games, even against the marauding Australians, the Lankan skipper has depended on de Silva bowling inside the first 15 overs and using his vast experience to keep things tight. Here, however, he kept his faster bowlers on in the face of the Indian assault, then backed himself to bowl with a bad thumb -- and in the 26th over, bowling over the wicket and aiming outside the leg stump, was struck for two superb sixes as Sehwag ran around the ball and hit inside out over wide long off.
The first wicket fell when Sehwag attempted to do unto Muralitharan what he had done to Jayasuriya. In the 27th over, the opener danced down and looked to loft inside out over long off, failed to account for the prodigious turn, and holed out to long on -- ending a partnership of 153 off 160 deliveries (Tendulkar 70 off 84, Sehwag 66/76).
Ganguly came in at number three, and survived a scare when Fernando banged down a bouncer. The captain took his eye off, and defended with a one handed push in front of his face, to see the ball flaring away over where second slip would have been. From that point on, however, Ganguly settled down to play a controlled knock, driving through the off and joining Tendulkar in milking the bowling with a stream of singles all round the park.
The partnership produced an interesting little incident indicative of the confidence flowing through the batsmen at the moment. In the 32nd over, Tendulkar pushed on the on side, and the two raced a single. The fielder, under pressure, fumbled -- and Tendulkar called for a second run. Ganguly said no. Meanwhile, Nissanka fumbled the return, and again, Ganguly turned down the run, though on both calls, a single was clearly on. He then grinned down the pitch at Tendulkar, and gestured a 'wait' at his partner.
The next delivery from Nissanka was short -- the attempted bouncer, which perhaps because of the softness of the ball just didn't get up. Ganguly waited well back inside his crease, let it come on, and slammed a six over wide midwicket --clearly, he had figured the bowler would try him out with the short ball, equally clearly he had decided that he had a chance to take the ball on, and he pulled it off with a stroke of supreme confidence. Ganguly may be vulnerable to the short rising ball -- but you clearly needed to have pace to pull it off successfully, and all the pace on Nissanka's delivery was achieved in course of its progress into the stands.
The way the two batted in a partnership of 61 in 75 deliveries (Tendulkar 27/36, Ganguly 30/39) made it clear that they were intent on getting past the 40 over mark without further loss before opening out. That plan, though, went kaput when Tendulkar attempted a paddle off de Silva, and saw the ball run along the leading edge, onto glove and forearm, and then to Sangakkara behind the sticks -- the second time in this World Cup that Tendulkar has been dismissed in the 90s.
At this point it needs mentioning that since the maiden he played out in the 14th over Tendulkar (who broke his usual quota of records in this innings) seemed almost studied in the way he worked his singles. The question that will arise is whether he was so intent on getting to his 100 before opening up that he gave it away by missing a few 'hittable' balls in between and, in the process, slowed the progression down just a bit.
The progression after the 25-over mark, for the record, was 136/0 in 25, 167/1 in 30, 194/1 in 35 and 219/2 in 40.
What followed his departure was a bit of an anticlimax -- India, at 214/2 after 39 overs, seemed on course for a 300+ score, but lost wickets in a heap through the last ten overs that produced 73 runs for 4 wickets.
Ganguly, who in the 42nd over had gone down on one knee to swing Russell Arnold over wide midwicket, looked to swing Vaas in the same direction in the 44th over, played all over a yorker length delivery, and was bowled -- a rather abrupt end to an innings of promise that ended up as a crisp little cameo. Ganguly coming in after the fall of Sehwag ensured that the momentum did not flag.
Vaas struck again in the 46th over, when another yorker cleaned up a wildly swinging Yuvraj Singh. In the next over, Muralitharan produced a beauty, landing outside off, spinning sharply across Kaif and clipping the top of leg stump to leave the batsman bemused.
Dinesh Mongia, coming in at a time when shots had to be played from ball one, produced a lovely lofted off drive, lifting Muralitharan with the turn clean over the boundary before holing out in an attempt to repeat the shot. Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh scrambled 15 runs off the last nine deliveries to take India to 292/6 -- less than what seemed possible, but far more than had been chased successfully on this track.
Sri Lanka's main problems lay in the fact that both Nissanka and Fernando went for runs. Jayasuriya, normally a very good performer with the ball in the middle overs, could not grip the ball properly -- and to compound the situation, had then to go off the field with a thigh strain, leaving Atapattu in charge.
The Lankan captain also lost his grip in other ways: firstly, in panicking before the openers and going on the defensive, which nullified his decision to insert and try and to take early wickets; secondly when he delayed the introduction of the experienced Aravinda into the attack.
The question will be asked: was the Lankan haste in bringing a clearly unfit Jayasuriya into this game worth the price tag?
Faced with a mountain to climb, Lanka lost its footing from the word go. Given that Jayasuriya was less than 100 percent, it was imperative for Atapattu to play a long innings. That hope ended in the second over, when Atapattu blasted a cut off a short ball from Srinath and Kaif, at cover, dived forward to pull off a superb catch, reducing Sri Lanka to 2/1.
Tillekeratne has been a calming influence at number three -- in fact, that was why he was resurrected during the VB series in Australia, and included in the World Cup lineup. With him injured, the young and untried Jehan Mubarak came out in that pivotal position under pressure -- and succumbed to his second ball, an angled delivery from Srinath that saw him fish and touch it through to the keeper.
The procession took on a sorry aspect from that point on. Mahela Jayawardene has been to Sri Lanka what Inzamam ul Haq was to Pakistan -- a terrific batsman who has not played terrific cricket in a long long while.
His performance here was par for his particular course -- to the third ball he faced, he shouldered arms and allowed a Zaheer Khan delivery to strike his pad. He was saved by the fact that the strike was outside line of off. Zaheer -- who seemed over-excited throughout his spell, and tended to spray the ball around a bit -- straightened his line, and landed one on leg angling to middle, Jayawardene looked to work it off his pads, missed the full length, and was pinned in front.
Srinath then took out Aravinda, with a bit of help from umpire David Shepherd. The delivery was bowled wide of the crease, Aravinda looked to work off to leg, was hit on the pad in front of middle by a ball that seemed to be drifting down leg side, but Shepherd opted to raise the finger.
Jayasuriya was clearly below his best -- he had played one of his trademark cuts without showing signs of his finger injury, but for the rest had been content to push the ball gently around the park. The absence of power in his shots especially in front of the wicket indicated clearly that the Lankan captain was unable to grip the bat the way he normally does -- a grip that often has been likened to that of a blacksmith on the handle of a sledgehammer. Off the last ball of the 8th over, he drove at Srinath with no power behind the shot, and picked out Kaif at cover.
The clearly pumped up Indians went for the quick kill -- no more bowling practise for the part-timers or, in fact, for Harbhajan Singh.
An aspect of India's bowling here has been the fact that Nehra, having developed into a wicket-taking bowler, comes in as first change. Not to compare Nehra with Allan Donald or Jason Gillespie -- clearly, such comparisions would err on the side of wild exaggeration -- but the point is that his running into form ensures that a batting side that weathers Srinath and Zaheer are still confronted by a seamer, in third slot, who attacks.
Sangakkara had looked the only competent batsman on view, cutting and driving with panache. Ashish Nehra caused him some problems around his off stump, then nailed his man when with extra pace and movement, he forced the miscue off an attempted square drive, the shot picking out Yuvraj.
Zaheer, returning to the bowling crease in place of Srinath, winkled out Arnold LBW. Nehra then cleaned up Vaas, who miscued a hook -- an earlier attempt off the same bowler landing in no man's land. He then took out Nissanka.
Followed a manic display by Muralitharan, whose on drives went to third man and cover drives went to fine leg. The only shot that did go to plan was a straight drive -- only, it went straight behind the keeper's head for four. The performance reduced everyone on the field -- Murali, the bemused bowlers, the fielders and captain Ganguly -- into a fit of the giggles, before the umpteenth miscue landed in Kaif's hands.
Sri Lanka were bowled out for 109 -- and India had won, by 183 runs, with a phenomenal 27 overs still left in the game.
The margin was India's second highest, following the 186-run win over Kenya at Paarl in the triangular ODI tournament in 2001.
For Ganguly, it was a satisfying win in more ways than one. As he pointed out in the post match conference, both batting and bowling clicked and the fielding, after an indifferent display against Kenya, picked up a few gears and got back to its best. More to the point -- and this, he refrained from emphasizing -- Ganguly has been sizzling ever since the Champions' Trophy in September last year, when the same two teams met in the final. In the scheduled final, and in its replay after the first final was washed out, India had gotten the upper hand against Lanka before the rains came down.
On that occasion, the two teams had shared the trophy, with Ganguly making no secret of the fact that he felt he and his team had been cheated of a win by the elements. Today, though the clouds hovered, it stayed well away with no repeat of the thunderstorm that had dumped 23 millimeters of rain on this ground 24 hours ago.
(As a sidelight, it is interesting that had it rained say around the 20th over, with Lankan at the time on 89/9, and resumption was not possible, the entire game would have been replayed a day later -- surely, the unfairness of such situations is something that needs to be thought of now, not after some ridiculous result underlines it?)
In the 1979 final, England recorded 5 ducks in an innings against the West Indies at Lords. Since then, despite all the minnows who have played in successive editions of the Cup, no team was humiliated to quite such an extent -- till Lanka equaled that unsavory record here with five ducks.
Interestingly, too, in 1996 Mohammad Azharuddin had inserted Lanka after winning the toss, and lost. In the next edition of the tournament, it was the turn of Sri Lanka to insert -- and be batted out of the competition, thanks to a stupendous century by Ganguly and his huge partnership with Dravid. Here, again, Jayasuriya called right, inserted, and lost.
The bowlers were clearly the heroes of the win, despite the commanding batting performance -- 292 is a huge target, but such targets have been hunted down before. The key was to nail Sri Lanka down in the first 15 overs -- and a score of 60/6 at that point indicates how thoroughly Srinath, who won the Man of the Match award, did it in tandem with Zaheer and Nehra.
The win got India to 16 points, and ensured the semifinal placing. It now plays New Zealand on March 14, at Centurion. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is marooned on 7.5 points -- and has a key game against Zimbabwe on March 15.
Meanwhile, BCCI statistician Mohandas Menon was speculating -- while we were live with the ball by ball commentary -- that among the many interesting possibilities ahead, was a scenario where Australia could end up meeting Kenya in the semifinals while India played Sri Lanka all over again!
For now, though, all that is in the ifs and buts realm, so let it lie... as Ganguly himself said when asked after the game if the Indians would prefer to play Australia in the finals, this is the World Cup, to win it, you have to beat all comers, so hey...