Australia match has Sri Lanka in a frenzy

A sporting tournament is gripping a nation. Think Ryder Cup and Champions' League and multiply twentyfold their influence on normal life. The ICC Champions Trophy has been the lead story on every back page of every newspaper in Sri Lanka for 17 days. It is the biggest sporting event ever held here.

A sporting tournament is gripping a nation. Think Ryder Cup and Champions' League and multiply twentyfold their influence on normal life. The ICC Champions Trophy has been the lead story on every back page of every newspaper in Sri Lanka for 17 days. It is the biggest sporting event ever held here.

Posters are everywhere: "Cricket is not a game, it's a passion." Every conversation seems to come back to the cricket. In the queue for a sandwich at a local deli yesterday a trio of young female beauties were talking about their weekend activities. Some trendy night-club was mentioned but only after they had been to the match.

Every other person in the country is intending to be at the semi-final against Australia. Should Sri Lanka win that number will double: i.e. everybody will say they were there. It is the day the going gets tough for the hosts. Their world and their form has changed since they made their way wretchedly round England in the summer from one defeat to the next. Since then they have played 10 one-day games and won nine.

"There was a realisation that the team was better than we showed in England," said the coach, Dav Whatmore. "There are a couple of different personnel and different conditions."

Sri Lanka have recalled the veteran Aravinda De Silva to their one-day side and his presence both as batsman and guiding light has been hugely significant. So, too, has the seam bowler Pulasthi Gunaratne, 28, unknown and unheralded until two months ago and now winning heroic notices for his calmness in tense finishes.

But Sri Lanka have confronted nothing like the athletic juggernaut that will come at them and keep coming at them today. As Whatmore conceded, Australia are the best side in the world. The transference of the one-day leadership has been seamless. Since Ricky Ponting took over from Steve Waugh, who had a bad home season last summer and was instantly replaced, Australia have returned to exemplary form.

Ponting said: "It's been a little bit difficult having such long gaps between matches but the key is our preparation. We travel so much that we're used to the conditions and the hostility of some of the crowds around the world."

There is history between the sides, not all of it savoury. On two previous tours of Australia, the great Muttiah Muralitharan has been no-balled for throwing which soured relations. But it is three years since they met (astonishing considering the crowded international calendar). Relations should be as sedate and polite as a hollering full house (and probably fuller than that) will allow.

The noise and fervour is just what it was once like at the Ryder Cup in America, without the swearing. If Australia really can handle it they can handle anything. Tonight they probably will – to test how big cricket really is in Sri Lanka.

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