Australian nerve versus the Sri Lankans' verve

Robert Winder reports from Lahore on a World Cup final of poetic inevitability
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The Independent Online
It was in the tea leaves from the start. When Australia kicked off their World Cup campaign by refusing to go to Sri Lanka, it was somehow inevitable that the two teams would end up in the final.

We can forget about the diplomatic arm-waving for a while. In Lahore tomorrow the teams, like town toughs having a barney behind the bike-sheds, can have themselves a damn good sort-out on the pitch. The only thing that could make it more poetic would be if the organisers suddenly decided - citing security hazards in Pakistan, say - to shift the final to Colombo.

It is possible that Australia would not mind this. For them, the final is very much an away match. In Pakistan, no one can compete with India in the most-hated-nation stakes, but Australia are public enemy No 2. The dust surrounding last year's unproven bribery allegations against Salim Malik by Shane Warne and Tim May has far from settled, and Australia will be given a reception they will not forget in a hurry.

They have recently committed, in the eyes of Pakistan's ultra-cynical cricket fans, a new crime. It is widely (and wildly) touted here that they allowed themselves to lose to the West Indies in that last group match - as a friendly gesture to their fellow Colombo refuseniks.

As if this was not enough, the Sri Lankans are all honorary Pakistanis now, after their victory over India in the semi-final.

There is, in other words, a fair amount blowing in Sri Lanka's favour. Not that they need help: they play a dashing, risky and brilliantly ambitious game. Not many of their players are well-known in England - Aravinda de Silva has starred for Kent last season, and the Kumara Dharmasena once picked up 160-odd and eight wickets for Reading against Wokingham - but this is because for some reason we hardly ever play them.

Australia know them well enough. When Sri Lanka went down under this winter they were accused of ball-tampering and Muthiah Muralitharan, was repeatedly called for throwing. Neither charge was substantiated, and there was even talk of lawsuit.

Things did not go all that well on the pitch either. Sri Lanka were solidly put in their place in all three Tests and were beaten 2-1 by Australia in the final of the triangular one-day competition, after eliminating the West Indies.

There are few better signs of Australia's present strength than the fact that Michael Slater scored 219 in one of those Tests- but cannot make the team in the World Cup.

Australia also showed, by scraping that extraordinary win against the West Indies on Thursday, that it takes something special to beat them. To be sure, the West Indies suffered a barely credible failure of nerve. But Australia's, even when defeat looked inevitable, did not waver. Mark Taylor never stopped looking for some way to get a grip on the match, and when Shivnarine Chanderpaul gave him one he hung on like a mongoose. Warne (and the West Indian lower order) did the rest.

You would have to go a long way, too, to see anything more impressive than the way the Australian middle order (Stuart Law and Michael Bevan) gave themselves something to bowl at after Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop had ploughed through the first four batsmen.

The most flattering thing you could say about it was that it was typical. So far as the final is concerned, that with-one-bound-they-were-free victory gives them a useful aura of invincibility. Fleming, for one - having secured the win by bowling Courtney Walsh in the final over - must be dying to get the ball in his hand again.

There is not much doubt that over a sustained series of matches Australia would be strong favourites. But tomorrow's match will not be sustained, and it will probably turn, as most matches involving Sri Lanka now turn, on the first 15 overs of the innings.

The Sri Lankans have added a new dimension to this phase of the game, and have stolen a march on the world. The assault on Kenya was one thing (84 off eight overs) and the crushing of England another.

But it was the first match against India that showed what could be done. India, led by Sachin Tendulkar's superb 137, accelerated in the traditional way, with 99 off the last 10 overs. Sri Lanka did the opposite, and how. They put on 50 in 4.4 overs, and carried on from there. Manoj Prabhakar's first two cost him 33 and, very possibly, his international career.

No one has ever attacked the new ball with such unrestrained vigour; Sanath Jayasuriya, who got 79 that day, has now been named Most Valuable Player of the Series, and given a smart new car, for making the most of one of sport's oldest ideas - that attack is the best form of defence.

Will it work again? Who knows? Is it possible to play like that against Warne? No one has managed it yet. Is there enough power (there is certainly enough variety) in the Sri Lankan bowling to prevent Taylor and Co from taking them to the cleaners? Is anyone seriously suggesting that Mark Waugh might fail twice in a row? It would not be a final if there were not unanswerable questions such as these.

But it promises to be a real game. Australia have the stronger pedigree, Sri Lanka, perhaps, the more heated desire. Back in September, Sri Lanka were 66-1 outsiders, but by the time the tournament began they were only 8-1. Anyone want to guess what the odds will be after the first five overs of their innings?