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By Gokul Chakravarthy
The very first official international match in the USA opened with a lot of fanfare and "fan fare". The crowd had been building up all through the morning, even as the USA played against Jamaica in the 1st T20 of the day at the Central Broward Regional Park.
The colorful Sri Lankan fans grossly outnumbered the Kiwi supporters. In fact, one friend pointed out how there were more Indian supporters than New Zealand supporters in the ground. But that didn’t deter a trio of the loyal “beige brigade” from showing up in their unmistakable gear in support of Daniel Vettori and his men. Nor did it deter the New Zealand cricketers themselves in playing to their best.
Photo (left): Sri Lanka and New Zealand pose in front of the Pearls Cup, Courtesy: DreamCricket.com
Vettori was to say later that “Leading up to it, there was a little bit of that exhibition feel, once both teams got on to the park, there was a real desire to win and to pick up, I suppose, from where we left off in the WT20. We wanted to finish a long season on a high note and to win a game here would do that.”
Daniel Vettori didn’t have any hesitation in choosing to bat first. The thought of chasing any score on a slow pitch against the Sri Lankan slow bowlers must have been a huge, if not the only, reason for this choice.
Brendon McCullum and Aaron Redmond opened the batting for them. McCullum hit some lovely stroked to the boundary, one even going over the boundary prompting the PA announcer at the stadium to ecstatically acknowledge that it was the “first international six on US soil”.
Photo (right): New Zealand fans cheer their team at Lauderhill, Courtesy: DreamCricket.com
But that sort of hitting was not going to be possible on a consistent basis on this pitch. Most of the other New Zealand batsman found that out the hard way. Angelo Matthews took a blinder to get rid of him in the 4th over with the score on 25.
Sri Lanka’s fielding and bowling was quite intense and Ross Taylor narrowly escaped a run out appeal against him soon after he got in. A free stroke-player like him couldn’t survive too much longer in any case, especially when he felt he had to resort to quick and risky 1s and 2s. His eventual score of 27 from 30 balls was a great indication of that. The Lankans didn’t miss the second time when Nuwan Kulasekara and wicket-keeper, Kumar Sangakkara colluded to run him out. He had walked even before the 3rd umpire could pass his verdict.
It wasn’t until Vettori himself marched in, at the fall of the 4th wicket of Scott Styris. He had pushed himself up the order above Martin Guptill. He started a little bit of the recovery act, more so in terms of the run-rate, than anything else. His ability with the bat has often spared New Zealand’s top order severe embarrassment and, in some cases, even won them matches. When asked about how he had gone about constructing his innings, “Straightaway, I thought 120. We weren’t sure it would be enough, but we knew it would be competitive. But we kept losing wickets and so it made it difficult and it was hard to hit from this [The Pavilion] end because of the wind and the boundaries. So we were set to scrap for everything and in the end 120 was enough today.”
Even though Scott Styris and Martin Guptill didn’t score too many runs themselves, their respective stays at the crease with Taylor and Vettori respectively played a big role in their team reaching that score.
Photo (left): Daniel Vettori walking back after giving his team something to defend, Courtesy: DreamCricket.com
For Sri Lanka, their fielding and catching, was quite a highlight. Their bowlers just had to avoid offering full-length deliveries or pace that the New Zealand batsmen could use to score boundaries. Led by Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis, they did that quite effectively.
In defense of his 120, Vettori opened his attack with pace on both ends – Kyle Mills from the Pavilion End and newcomer Andy McKay, who the coach and captain had spoken of quite highly in the lead-up to this series, from the other end. This meant that his tendency to open with Nathan McCullum, which would have fit this pitch like a glove, had to be quelled and the batsmen would get enough pace from the deliveries to play their strokes – a luxury Sri Lanka didn’t bestow upon their own batsmen.
Mahela Jayawardena’s initial WT20 form had given way to 3 poor scores in his last 3 matches at that tournament. His vicissitudes wouldn’t let go in this match as he edged the 2nd ball of his and his team’s innings to leave the field for a disappointing duck. Tillakaratne Dilshan used it to good effect, though. He played some aggressive shots, along with regular one-down, Sangakkara. But much like Taylor, he found out that on this pitch he was not going to be able to play his own game. But unlike Taylor, he refused to try and adapt. Kyle Mills’ subtle change of pace, beat his defenses and brought his wicket down.
Andy McKay was replaced by Tim Southee and Mills by Nathan McCullum. After just 1 over of Southee, Vettori brought himself on from the Makeshift-TV-tower end.
The pair of Sangakkara and Angelo Matthews was the only one that gave Sri Lanka any hope of a win. Matthews extended his streak with the bat beyond the WT20 and top-scored for Sri Lanka. Even though the scorecard would reveal that he had done almost exactly what Taylor had done for his team, what it conceals is his much more fluent stay at the crease. He, along with Sangakkara, was the only batsman that was able to time the ball consistently on the surface on offer.
Photo (right): Mahela Jayawardena walks back after the 2nd ball, even as the jumbotron replays his dismissal, Courtesy: DreamCricket.com
Scott Styris came and plugged the scoring so much that even the well-set Angelo Matthews, who had taken Nathan McCullum out of the attack, could not hit him clean. He holed out to a safe Jacob Oram at long on, who was on for most of the innings for Martin Guptill.
Whereas New Zealand had the services of Vettori at the bottom of their order, Sri Lanka had no such resistance from theirs and capitulated to a mare 92 on the penultimate delivery of their innings.
“On this track, we should have been a bit smarter the way in which we batter. We had severe setbacks in the first 6 and right through the middle overs. We got to make sure tomorrow we’ve got a different batting plan, individually,” is how Sangakkara was to sum up his team’s woes on the day.
It is all too natural and simplistic to bash a sluggish pitch like the one at Lauderhill when not too many runs are scored, but for the 1000s of fans who showed up and witnessed this match firsthand, the type of fielding and bowling skills both New Zealand and Sri Lanka had brought to the match was a spectacle in itself. People were loudly cheering diving stops, slides a foot inside the boundary rope, diving catches, lightning-fast reflexes of the bowlers when the ball was hit back to them. These were aspects of the sport most on the US soil had never seen before up close.
One such ardent fan from Austin, Texas, Michael Gale, who also happens to be the Chairman of an Intercity Cricket Tournament in that state, felt that “US cricket has finally woken from a slumber, stretched its limbs and joined the real world of international cricket. There are individuals and entrepreneurs in the US that will start to wake up and start investing. We should see events like this as the norm going forward and not exception. I hope we can all support in a positive way to our [collective] future.”
These sentiments were echoed by many in the stands who didn’t hold back in expressing their joy.
Photo (left): Fans having great fun at the Central Broward Regional Park, Courtesy: DreamCricket.com
The players themselves couldn’t overlook this. “There were obviously a lot of Sri Lankan fans here. So it had that subcontinent feel. The crowd was entertained and the entertainment off the field was great for the game. And whilst it wasn’t as high-scoring a game as people might have wanted, it was still quite a thrilling game, as lower-scoring ones can be,” said Vettori.
“It was nice to see so many Sri Lankans here. They had flown down from a lot of places here in the States. Sri Lankans have a lot of fun when they come to watch cricket games and today was no different. We can hopefully see a better performance from them.”
Cricket-spoilt international fans and 'experts' may gripe about the pitch and the conditions but to the US cricket fans, who should have the last say on the matter, international cricket has well and truly arrived in their backyard and they can't wait to get a lot more of it.