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Sri Lanka eye Cup with renewed hope

Charlie Austin | January 29, 2003 17:15 IST

Despite not qualifying for the recent triangular series finals in Australia, Sri Lanka travel to South Africa in buoyant mood with captain Sanath Jayasuriya back in form and key bowler Muttiah Muralitharan fully fit.

Down and out at the end of last year with Jayasuriya struggling and Muralitharan recovering from hernia surgery, Sri Lanka slipped from being the most favoured Asian side in the tournament to being unlikely qualifiers for the Super Six stage.

Form had slumped after their shared ICC Champions Trophy with India in September, their batsmen struggling to adapt to the unfamiliar fast and bouncy pitches in South Africa, where they lost a Test and one-day series.

The former world champions appeared to be facing certain World Cup humiliation after three straight losses during the opening part of their triangular series in Australia and then being skittled for just 65 by Australia A.

Jayasuriya's form during that period was dreadful, the left-hander opener scoring just 130 runs at 16.25 in eight matches. The management were so concerned that a middle order demotion was considered.

Famed for the gloriously combustible potential of his strokeplay, Jayasuriya had become increasingly timid and diffident as he tried to regain form.

But, at the start of the year, his desperation forced him to return to the more natural high-octane style that added "pinch-hitting" to the cricketing lexicon during the 1996 World Cup.

He vowed to back his natural instincts and attack right from the start and did so to spectacular effect. Although he rode his luck at first, he plundered two consecutive hundreds.


Meanwhile, the return of the talismanic Muralitharan -- following a six-week lay-off -- brought Sri Lanka fresh optimism and immediate results as both Australia's and England's batsmen struggled on a spinning Sydney Cricket Ground pitch.

With Jayasuriya back in free-flowing form and Muralitharan adding teeth to the bowling attack, the make-up of Sri Lanka's best World Cup team has quickly slotted into place.

A long-term experiment with "bits-and-pieces" seam bowling all rounders had already been abandoned as the team management decided instead to play seven specialist batsmen and four frontline bowlers.

Sri Lanka's historic weakness against quick bowling on bouncy pitches also prompted one-day recalls for veteran batsmen Aravinda De Silva and Hashan Tillakaratne.

The 37-year-old De Silva, one of only three players to have scored 9,000 one-day runs, was drafted back into the one-day side in July after shedding 12 kilograms and proving his fitness to the selectors.

The left-handed Tillakaratne, an adhesive accumulator of runs previously considered to be a Test specialist, was included in the 15-man squad to add solidity to the top order.

Mahela Jayawardene, Russel Arnold and Kumar Sangakkara combine in the middle order, shifting position according to the match situation.

The bowling attack is headed by Muralitharan, rated by cricket bible Wisden as the best bowler in Test history, who recently became the fourth bowler to take 300 wickets in Tests and one-day internationals.


The off-spinner, whose unique bowling style combines finger spin and wrist rotation to produce prodigious turn, is Sri Lanka's key wicket-taker as well as their most economical bowler.

His mere presence instills confidence in his team mates, a fact graphically illustrated by Jayasuriya's declining win ratio as captain -- from 58 per cent to 22 percent -- when Muralitharan is absent.

Left-armer Chaminda Vaas leads the seam bowling attack with support from the fast-improving Dilhara Fernando, Sri Lanka's quickest bowler.

Fellow seamers Pulasthi Gunaratne, Charitha Buddhika and Prabath Nissanka vie for the final bowling slot with Jayasuriya using his left-arm spin for the remaining 10 overs.

Sri Lanka's chances of qualifying for the Super Sixes stage are increased by having been grouped in Pool B, widely considered to be the weaker of the two seven-team groups.

The Asians launch their World Cup campaign against tournament dark horses New Zealand in Bloemfontein on February 10, with key matches against West Indies in Cape Town and South Africa in Durban.

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