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Form not everything
January 16, 2003
Never can the capricious nature of one-day cricket have been better emphasised than in the past week or so of the final stage of the international season in Australia.
Last Tuesday in Adelaide, Sri Lanka were humiliated for 65, thrashed in three hours by Australia's second side, after having convincingly lost the opening three games of their tri-series campaign. The Lankans were so awful in that practice fixture, they lasted just 25 overs and 114 minutes, and a second, 25-over exhibition game had to be arranged for the benefit of spectators and players alike. Which they duly lost.
Quite legitimately, Sri Lanka's chances of winning a game in the tri-series, let alone qualifying for the finals, could have been dismissively written off. As the ACB detailed in a release the following day, no team that had lost its first three games in the 22-year history of the competition had ever reached the finals. The odds were that Sri Lanka would not be the first. Moreover, with confidence seemingly non-existent, the World Cup aspirations of the '96 champions appeared in tatters.
Now fast forward to two days later in Sydney. Sri Lanka, not substantially changed, post a record score of 343 against Australia, including the highest partnership for any wicket by a Sri Lankan pair, Jayasuriya and Atapattu's 237 for the first wicket the third-highest opening partnership ever. Had the innings stayed on track, it is not an exaggeration to suggest Sri Lanka would have come somewhat closer to pushing their own record score of 398.
Despite the known vagaries of limited-overs form, it is still amazing that a side can go from spineless to gangbusters in two days. One would think being bowled out for 65 would say something about a team's mental state, but apparently not.
If something revolutionary happened in the intervening period, captain Sanath Jayasuriya wasn't letting on. Sri Lanka reportedly did not practice in the time between games, but it was easy to believe he was just offering a captain's superficial platitudes when he said his side had the experience to turn it around. Not so.
Hitherto, Jayasuriya had appeared a frustrated, peeved captain -- and one in charge of a rapidly sinking side. Speaking to television after his man-of-the-match performance on Thursday, in which he also wrecked Australia's middle order with 4/39, he could barely contain himself.
Followed up by a win over England in Brisbane on Monday on the back of another Jayasuriya ton, Sri Lanka had two wins from two, and the remarkable Muralitharan nearly engineered a comeback victory against Australia on Wednesday. Now Sri Lanka must return to the scene of their debacle and defeat England in Adelaide to remain on track for the finals.
While still on the brink of elimination, Sri Lanka's form reversal has mainly been a return to traditional strengths: With Atapattu anchoring, Jayasuriya went back to playing his natural game, hitting the ball, rather than being caught between attacking and batting through the innings as he was before. After averaging a miserable 19.5 in 30 previous games in Australia, his consecutive hundreds re-launched Sri Lanka's campaign and answered a reportedly growing band of critics at home.
Sri Lanka's spinners have also come back into their own, with wickets falling to Jayasuriya, the damnably difficult de Silva -- and Murali. Their change in fortunes has coincided with Muralitharan's return from a hernia operation, and he single-handedly changed Wednesday's game against Australia from one of fluid comfort for the hosts, cruising to victory, to a grim battle of concentration.
Murali's first spell figures of 3/13 from 7 overs don't quite do him justice. This was Brisbane, not Colombo, and openers Hayden and Maher were flying at 76/0 in the 14th in pursuit of 212. They sought to assert some authority, using their feet. Maher was stumped. De Silva helped apply pressure, Hayden grew restless, and was caught at deep square leg. Martyn, playing from the crease, stiffly played onto his stumps.
Murali's quadriceps injury, part of what is now becoming an injury-plagued season for all three international teams here, is a blow. If Warne is vital to Australia, Murali is simply indispensable to Sri Lanka. Cultivating bowlers for a variety of conditions is the right policy and should pay off in the longer term. For now, though, the likes of Gunaratne, Nissanka and Buddika are not likely to get Sri Lanka too far at the Cup. Murali, with Jayasuriya and de Silva in support, still might, and he does not need any lingering concerns.
The Kandy man (always with the prefix "controversial" attached to his name while in Australia, unlike the uncontroversial Brett Lee, harangued with bellows of "no ball!" by the politically incorrect Barmy Army during the last two Tests) now has more than 300 ODI wickets. He limped back onto the field for his final two overs and, bowling virtually from a standing start, still managed to dismiss Shane Watson.
The moral of the story, really, is not to give undue emphasis to form, but rather the character and ability of those in the side. Since losing their first three, Sri Lanka have also seen the return to the side of de Silva and Tillakeratne, and while both were part of the Adelaide debacle, one assumes they would have had a steadying influence. India and other temporary strugglers can take heart from this. If a team can be reasonably confident that it has the personnel and processes to compete, then form can, with reservation, be overlooked in the short term.
Though they are winning, this applies equally to Australia, but for the opposite reasons. The series win-loss count is a healthy 5-1, but they are not without a few concerns.
Against Sri Lanka last week, Australia paid for the selectors' arrogance, as Andrew Symonds was brought in for the injured McGrath on the rationale that they wanted to draw from within the World Cup squad and get Symonds involved. This left a weakened attack, already unaccustomed to the absence of pressure supplied by any one of McGrath, Warne or Gillespie, one bowler short. There was simply no-one to reverse the momentum once Jayasuriya and Atapattu got going (despite Symonds, a soft target, returning economical figures of 1/50 from nine with his off-spin). Now, with Bichel also sidelined, Williams and Bracken have had to be brought in anyway and could yet be needed for the World Cup.
There is a saying that it's great to have depth, as long as you don't have to use it. While Australia's A teams are probably capable of beating most other sides at either form of the game, there has been an appreciable diminution in quality once reserve bowlers have needed to be relied on in the first team, and others have had to lead the way. Brett Lee did not distinguish himself against England in Hobart, too easily targeted by Hussain and Stewart as he bowled a hittable length. Lee is yet to show he can be called upon at any stage.
Brad Hogg is also still an unknown. He helped turn the game against England with three wickets, though still went for 55 runs from 9 overs after being belted for 75 against Sri Lanka. Ostensibly economical, Hogg's economy rate through his first three games was 6.17, and his first spell of 5 overs against Sri Lanka in Brisbane yielded 0/28. However, he bowled superbly thereafter, confusing Jayawardene before bowling him behind his legs with a wrong'un, also deceiving Arnold with that delivery to have him caught behind. Mixing in frequent googlies, he was a much more dangerous bowler, and had 2/10 off his final five overs to finish with 2/38. Who knows what happens next.
In addition to the waywardness of a depleted attack, the Australians' fielding, usually an indicator of their form, had been ordinary in their first five games. Notable exceptions aside, their catching was below standard even throughout the Test series. They improved vastly on Wednesday, hitting the stumps on numerous occasions, and will want to maintain that high level.
On the flip side, positives are also numerous. Damien Martyn has returned to runs, Jimmy Maher has shown his Cup selection was correct, and after also copping a hammering against SL in Sydney, Shane Watson bounced back against England at the weekend. With the game in the balance, Ponting called upon Watson to bowl the 48th and 50th overs and, hitting the disciplined length that eluded Lee, he dismissed Stewart and Hussain to seal the game.
Ricky Ponting should be reasonably happy with his side's progress, but he still has improvement to oversee. As do Hussain and Jayasuriya.