Ranatunga proves a canny captain

Henry Blofeld finds much to praise in a display of strength and maturity by Sri Lanka
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The Independent Online
When Australia passed a hundred in the 19th over for the loss of only one wicket, a total of 300, which would surely have put the final beyond Sri Lanka's reach, looked more than possible.

By then, the offspinners, Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Dharmasena, had bowled half a dozen overs on a slow pitch that allowed a gentle turn to start with. Arjuna Ranatunga's gamble in putting Australia in did not look a success.

But they did not allow for Ranatunga's captaincy skills, the new-found maturity in Sri Lanka's cricket, and the control and variety of their spinners. In a fascinating piece of cricket, Muralitharan, Dharmasena, the third offspinner, Aravinda de Silva and orthodox left-arm spinner Sanath Jayasuriya took control.

Ranatunga himself gave the comfortable impression that he was always in control, which is so important, and shrewdly shuffled his spinners around. The score had reached 137 for 1 in the 27th over when de Silva, who had succeeded Dharmasena, threw one up invitingly on Mark Taylor's middle and leg stumps. He was deceived in the air as he swept and caught off a thick top edge at backward square leg.

With Muralitharan bowling at the other end the game underwent a sea change; suddenly runs were much harder to come by and also with the spinners in control the ball appeared to be turning more dangerously, but nothing like as badly as it had in the semi-final in Calcutta. Four overs later, Rick Ponting also misjudged de Silva when he played on trying to run a ball against the spin to third man.

Shane Warne now strode confidently out in order to force the pace along, but in the next over tried to turn Muralitharan around the corner off the front foot, overbalanced and was quite brilliantly stumped by Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Ranatunga is familiar with the Australians after their tour of Sri Lanka before Christmas and he had carefully worked-out plans for every batsman. He constantly talked to his bowlers too, who were in their turn backed up by some splendid fielding on a lovely smooth outfield.

It was as high a class exhibition of spin bowling as it would be possible to find in contemporary cricket and was further evidence that Sri Lanka's success does not depend only on the mercurial strokeplay of their batsmen, particularly at the start of the innings.

And on it went. Steve Waugh, another batsman to be beaten in the air, was caught off a skier behind the bowler, Stuart Law played a loose cut borne of pressure and was caught at point, while Ian Healy left a gap between bat and pad against de Silva. By the end of the 50 overs, Sri Lanka had kept Australia to a manageable total.

In the first hour of the afternoon, Taylor had again shown how easy he has found it to shoulder the responsibilities of captaincy. Sometimes a plodder when circumstances demand, he now went for his wide range of strokes - Michael Atherton please note - after the early loss of Mark Waugh, and he established a useful springboard for Australia before the spinners turned the game around.