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When the setting for a World Cup semi-final is the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo and Sri Lanka are one of the competing teams, it doesn’t really take Albert Einstein to figure out the equation. Tailor-made turning track, spin based attack and New Zealand ought to be jumping on their toes. It could well turn out that way and Lanka would then speed off to Mumbai straight from the ground itself. Confident as it may sound doing that however may not be so easy.
The biggest reason for that being the quarter-final against England played here this past weekend. It wasn’t really a rank turner, just slow enough to never allow the English batsmen to get on top. Lanka were all over the place on the field and that they were chasing 200-plus runs was down to their poor catching. If they repeat that on the morrow, one doubts if the pitch will be a factor at all. Having said that, semi-finals are different ballpark and everyone brings their A-game forward. Well, almost everyone, for someone has to lose. If the curators decide to make a decent pitch out of it, where spin and the batting second factor are negated, we might have a very even game on our hands.
The second point of apprehension towards an overtly spinner friendly track is the presence of Daniel Vettori and his support bowlers. Vettori did sit out for them in a few games owing to injury, but when it mattered he turned up to tighten the screws around South Africa. Together with Nathan McCullum and Luke Woodcock, he bowled twenty-five (and something) overs for just eighty three runs taking three wickets. You would want to say that a repeat against Lanka is asking a lot, considering the vast difference in the batsmen’s techniques and relative comfort against spin. Even so, spinners do take wickets against fancied batsmen and only one good delivery is enough in each case.
Lanka need to be apprehensive because they have a batting line-up dependent on their top order. If the openers and their two main batsmen, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene return for only a few, curtains will be put up on the show quite nearly. That Tilakratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga are in tremendous touch is in no doubt, but a similar collapse did transpire at Mumbai when the two teams met in the group stage. New Zealand will only remember that too well, knowing fully what is needed to dig their claws deep into the game. That they played on a slow wicket at Mirpur and triumphed, despite obviously lacking an out and out medium pacer, reflects that a similar track will not pose them too many problems.
Beyond the pitch however the main battle will be between the Lankan spinners and the Kiwi batting. On most days, Muttiah Muralitharan would have been enough, but this is not the last decade. Times have changed and the legendary bowler is closer to bidding the game good bye. In all probability it will be his last match at home, since he has already done away with Tests, but the injury cloud over his availability will perhaps be answered only at the last possible minute. If he does play then to his name you can add Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath. And on certain days, when the skipper feels like it, Dilshan opens the bowling as well. That is forty overs of slow, spinning stuff on a track that will not have much pace on it as it is and it clearly dawns that New Zealand will again be facing an uphill task to get a decent score on the board.
It took the patience of Jesse Ryder to get them past 200 in their last game, but the stakes are even higher. What ails the Kiwi batting is their over-dependence on Ross Taylor. He is but their one true hope of destroying bowling attacks, for Brendon McCullum simply isn’t consistent enough. Of course there are days when he will stay at the wicket longer than he deems to and bowlers will rip out their hearts. Will Lanka be able to counter him early or bear the brunt of his prowess might just decide the course of this match early on. If he plays well enough, then it also gives a platform to Taylor and launch for a bigger score. If they do end up batting first, the Kiwis will do well to remember that nearly eight times out of ten a target of 250-plus hasn’t been chased at this ground.
That statistic pales in front of the 231-run first wicket partnership put up by the Lankan openers just one match ago. The interesting part being that whenever sides batting second have gone up to chase big targets here, they have invariably made the best of starts. Couldn’t Lanka have chased 300 had England managed to put that score up on Saturday? It is quite possible to think so. That it didn’t happen was again down to the opposition batting finding it too tough to get away from the tight clutches of their bowlers. If, and that is a big if, New Zealand can somehow make it count against the spinners, they will have a huge chance.
World Cup semi-finals though are not always about statistics and pitches, or even straight one on one competition. There is always that aura about such an occasion that beckons the unthinkable and when it is all over, after a long time, we romanticize how a particular individual excelled on this day, defying the odds. The other match between India and Pakistan a day later has cast a shadow over the first semi-final, but to say that it could be any less magical would be too unfair on what has been a most brilliant tournament.
(Chetan Narula is a sportswriter based in New Delhi, India. His Twitter feed is here.)