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Flying start for Sri Lanka

At the end of what may prove to have been a momentous week for cricket, Sri Lanka, runners-up to Australia in the World Cup final, showed yesterday that they may also be the biggest threat to the world’s best team in Twenty20. Their group match with New Zealand in Johannesburg counted for little as both sides had already qualified for the second phase, but Sri Lanka put on another awesome display of intimidatory batting.

Nothing beats a flying start to a one-day innings, and nobody knows more about that than Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka’s whirling dervish. Twenty-four hours after plundering 88 from 44 balls against Kenya, he won a second man-of-the-match award with a terrific 61 from 43 deliveries that made the lightest of work of Sri Lanka’s pursuit of 165.

Jayasuriya inflicted most of his damage in an opening stand of 82 in 45 balls with Upul Tharanga, who fully played his part in knocking Shane Bond and Mark Gillespie off their lengths, and New Zealand’s demoralisation thereafter was plain. Bond dropped Jayasuriya twice in two balls – one a difficult chance, the other a sitter.

When Tharanga was out, Jayasuriya had scored 42 from 20 balls, but after that he eased up and let his partners attack. Mahela Jayawardene’s unbeaten 35 from 18 balls means that he his tournament record now stands at 100 runs from 45 balls. “Once they get set, these guys can score anything,” said Trevor Bayliss, the Sri Lanka coach.

Sri Lanka now enter group F with Australia, but victories over Bangladesh and Pakistan would be enough to see both teams into the semi-finals regardless of how their match in Cape Town on Thursday finishes.

If only they had Muttiah Muralitharan with them.

New Zealand’s score did not look remotely sufficient. Johannesburg is at altitude, unlike the coastal cities of Cape Town and Durban, and it has produced the highest scores of the tournament, with Sri Lanka posting a world record Twenty20 score of 260 against Kenya and West Indies and South Africa both topping 200 in the opening fixture.

Already the mantra among coaches about Twenty20 cricket is, “partnerships”. Sides that lose regular wickets struggle to maintain momentum; batsmen cannot go as hard at the ball if they are having to be mindful of keeping wickets in hand. And this is where Sri Lanka did so well, first when they bowled and later when they batted.

They removed the New Zealand openers early and after Gayan Wijekoon had broken a stand of 70 in 34 balls between Ross Taylor and Peter Fulton, they snapped up the crucial wickets of Scott Styris and Craig McMillan in quick succession.

Although Taylor and Jacob Oram were to add 51 in 36 balls, Taylor’s demise, feathering a catch to the keeper, meant that the last eight balls of the innings yielded only 11. By targeting the leg side heavily, Taylor plundered 62 from 42 balls while Oram weighed in with 33 from 20 balls. But Wijekoon, effectively Murali’s stand-in, was the only Sri Lankan bowler to really suffer.

Already, this tournament is set to be a major success. Within a few years, Twenty20 cricket has spread around the globe with phenomenal speed. It is proving hugely attractive to two key stakeholders: the public, who are happy to give up a few hours to watch a match, whereas they were not always willing to give up even a whole day, let alone several; and the television companies, for whom better viewing figures mean better advertising rates.

The money on offer for further proposed Twenty20 tournaments – the Champions League for domestic teams from England, Australia, South Africa and Asia, and the breakaway Indian Cricket League – is such that it may persuade international cricketers approaching the ends of their careers to retire early in the knowledge that they can still earn good money playing in these specialist events.

That is one possible consequence. Others include the way the sport is presented to its new public. Once players have been asked to sit in dugouts on the edge of the boundary, and give TV interviews in the midst of matches, it is very hard to argue why they should not do so in other forms of the game.

Similarly, television companies might want to extend the use of overhead cameras, which have been in commission at the Wanderers, and the measuring of six hits (Chris Gayle has so far struck the longest at 101 metres).

But all of this raises two worrying questions. Will crowds grow intolerant of cricket played over 50 overs or five days? Judging by the empty seats in the members pavilion at Newlands last night, perhaps traditional spectators will remain immune.

And is there really room in the calendar for the top players to appear in Test matches, “traditional” one-day internationals and Twenty20? Surely something has to give. It may be the surfeit of 50-overs contests. One hopes it is not Test cricket.

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Categories: Cricket Article, twenty20
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