Wicket to slow down Australia's speed machine

Angus Fraser
Tuesday 18 March 2003 01:00

On paper, today's first World Cup semi-final between Australia and Sri Lanka would seem a mismatch. In one dressing-room at the St George's Park Ground in Port Elizabeth we have Ricky Ponting's seemingly invincible team. As well as being the reigning one-day champions they are unquestionably the best side in the world, and are on a 15-match unbeaten run. Most expect Australia to stretch the sequence to 17 in the final in Johannesburg this Sunday.

Charged with the task of ending this run are Sri Lanka, the 1996 World Cup winners. After a bright start to the tournament, Sanath Jayasuriya's team have stuttered along and owe their position in the last four as much to the inability of other teams to play consistently good cricket as their own good form. In Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan they have two of the most successful bowlers in the tournament, but their batting, other than Marvan Atapattu, has been erratic.

Although they are the last team to beat Australia, in Sydney on 9 January, recent meetings have not made happy reading for Sri Lanka. Indeed, the two teams have already met in the tournament during the Super Sixes, when Sri Lanka were walloped by the rampaging bats of Ponting and Adam Gilchrist before Brett Lee roughed up their top order with fiery opening spell. They can expect similar tactics today.

It appears, then, that there is little point in Sri Lanka turning up. But there is even room for a bit of optimism on the part of Jayasuriya's men after viewing the 22 yards of Asia sitting here in the middle of a South African oasis.

Pitches do not win matches, but they do suit some teams more than others. Australia prefer, and are used to playing on, fast, bouncy surfaces where their attacking batsmen can go for their shots and the quick bowlers can bully the opposition. And even though the fast bowling of Andy Bichel, Shane Bond and Lee has taken wickets here, this is not the type of pitch they will be playing on today in the Eastern Cape.

The wicket at St George's Park has been slow and low so far in the World Cup, and its dry, mosaic appearance will have put a smile on Jayasuriya's face. It is sure to encourage spinners and these are just the sort of conditions in which Sri Lanka can play their best cricket.

It has been at this venue that Australia have had their two sternest challenges, from England and New Zealand, in the competition to date. To their credit, they came through as winners on each occasion, but that was only due to the endeavour of Bichel and Michael Bevan.

This will have given Australia encouragement but in each of these games they have had nothing to lose because their qualification for the next round was guaranteed.Watching them attempt to recover in a must-win situation could be interesting, because it is a position they have not encountered so far during this tournament.

Ponting complained about conditions following both the England and New Zealand games and his body language, along with that of a couple of his colleagues, was unimpressive against the Kiwis, making it evident that Australia do not enjoy playing here.

Despite losing batsman Damien Martyn, who fractured his right index finger against Kenya on Saturday, Australia are still favourites. The toss will be vital because the pitch becomes harder to bat on as the game progresses, and 220 could be a winning total for the side batting first.

An upbeat Sri Lankan coach, Dav Whatmore, was not ruling out the chance of an upset. "The wicket will dictate the way the match is played," he said. "Australia are definitely the side under pressure, because they have blown away teams and are now in a situation where you lose one and you have gone. Sri Lanka have had to fight harder. We are always capable of a terrific performance, sometimes when you least expect it."

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