For international cricket's greatest ever wicket taker, there could be no more suitable final stage. Muttiah Muralitharan will bow out of international cricket at the World Cup final after his Sri Lanka side survived a New Zealand comeback to win the first semi-final by five wickets.
Murali played his part, taking 2for 42 from his 10 overs and taking a wicket with his final ball – his last ball in an international match played in his home country. His efforts, however, were overshadowed by those of both "mystery" spinner Ajantha Menis (who took 3 for 35) and Tillakaratne Dilshan, now this World Cup's highest run scorer after his crucial 73 in Sri Lanka's response.
This was by no means a humiliation for New Zealand. Like England in their quarter-final against Sri Lanka, the Kiwis did not score enough runs batting first: 217 never looked sufficient. Unlike England, they almost got out of jail: with the hosts 185 for 5, needing 33 from 48 balls and with Lasith Malinga next in, they had a chance. Chamara Silva and Angelo Mathews, however, found the shots required to lead Sri Lanka home.
Mathews said afterwards that he never doubted Sri Lanka would get over the line; if that is true, he was nearly alone at the R Premadasa Stadium. "I never had any doubt, because I always thought we were going to win," said the all-rounder, who had to bat with a runner after injuring his thigh while fielding. "It was getting to us, because the pressure was on. We had to pull something out of the bag. I couldn't ask for any more, doing it in the semi-finals."
Mathews was delighted to pay tribute to Muralitharan. "He's just a legend – the best spinner in the world," he said. "He's done a great job right through the tournament. All credit to him."
The Sri Lanka captain, Kumar Sangakkara, added: "Murali is the icon of Sri Lanka – as a champion, a cricketer and a human being. He is the ultimate team man. You cannot ask for anything more than that."
Sangakkara was also sweating a little after he and Dilshan were out, but said: "It was Murali's last match, and everyone was pumped to make sure we gave him a great send-off."
Beaten New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori had already revealed he would relinquish his position at the end of this campaign. "It will be sad to step down, but I look forward to carrying on playing," he said.
Sri Lanka, he predicts, will be difficult opponents for whoever else reaches the final. "They are going to be very tough, particularly their bowling unit if they all click." The 1996 champions, and runners-up at the last World Cup in Caribbean, will now play the winners of today's semi-final between Pakistan and India in Mumbai on Saturday.
Sri Lanka, set a modest 218 to win, were cruising at 160 for 1 but lost four quick wickets before recovering to win by five wickets with 13 balls to spare. New Zealand, who defeated South Africa in a similar situation in the quarter-finals, have now reached the semi-finals six times without advancing further.
Dilshan's dismissal started a mini-collapse with Mahela Jayawardene (1) and Sangakkara (54) falling in quick succession. Mathews relieved the tension with a huge six as Sri Lanka thankfully crossed the finishing line.
Earlier, Scott Styris had anchored New Zealand's 217 from 48.5 overs with a dogged 57 from 77 balls, before he was lbw to Muralitharan.
ICC World Cup Semi-Final: R Premadasa Stadium (One day): Sri Lanka beat New Zealand by five wickets; New Zealand won toss
M J Guptill b Malinga 39/0/3/65/90
†B B McCullum b Herath 13/1/1/21/27
J D Ryder c Sangakkara b Muralitharan 19/0/2/34/45
L R P L Taylor c Tharanga b Mendis 36/0/1/55/87
S B Styris lbw b Muralitharan 57/0/5/77/118
K S Williamson lbw b Malinga 22/0/3/16/21
N L McCullum c Sangakkara b Malinga 9/1/0/9/7
J D P Oram c Jayawardene b Dilshan 7/0/1/9/11
*D L Vettori not out 3/0/0/3/8
T G Southee c Sangakkara b Mendis 0/0/0/3/2
A J McKay b Mendis 0/0/0/2/1
Extras (lb5 w6 nb1) 12
Total (48.5 overs) 217
Fall 1-32, 2-69, 3-84, 4-161, 5-192, 6-204, 7-213, 8-215, 9-217.
Bowling S L Malinga 9-0-55-3, H M R K B Herath 9-1-31-1, A D Mathews 6-0-27-0, B A W Mendis 9.5-0-35-3, M Muralitharan 10-1-42-2, T M Dilshan 5-0-22-1.
W U Tharanga c Ryder b Southee 30/1/4/31/28
T M Dilshan c Ryder b Southee 73/1/10/93/141
*†K C Sangakkara c Styris b McKay 54/1/7/79/131
D P M D Jayawardene lbw b Vettori 1/0/0/3/3
T T Samaraweera not out 23/0/3/38/74
L P C Silva b Southee 13/0/2/25/27
A D Mathews not out 14/1/1/18/29
Extras (lb2 w10) 12
Total (for 5, 47.5 overs) 220
Fall 1-40, 2-160, 3-161, 4-169, 5-185.
Did not bat S L Malinga, H M R K B Herath, M Muralitharan, B A W Mendis.
Bowling N L McCullum 6-0-33-0, T G Southee 10-2-57-3, D L Vettori 10-0-36-1, J D P Oram 8-1-29-0, A J McKay 9.5-1-37-1, S B Styris 2-0-12-0, J D Ryder 2-0-14-0.
Umpires Aleem Dar (Pak) and S J Davis (Aus).