06 October 2012 - 11:48am IST
by R Kaushik in Colombo
If Sri Lanka needed any forewarning at all, it came at the R Premadasa Stadium on Friday night.
The explosive might of the West Indian batting line-up was on full view in the second semi-final of the ICC World Twenty20 2012, when Australia was swept aside in a flurry of frenzied boundary-hitting that reduced the encounter to one-way traffic. West Indies came into the competition as the team to look out for primarily on the back of its array of power-hitters capable of decimating the best in the business. It couldn’t have chosen a better time to let loose.
There is, though, still the small matter of the final, on Sunday night, against a team better equipped to react to situations than the Australians did on Friday. Sri Lanka’s entry to the title round has had little to do with chance or accident. It has played like a cohesive unit that has made the most of its familiarity with conditions in its own backyard, it has pulled off tactical masterstrokes and made the right changes depending on the opposition, and is itching to get its hands on some silverware after having lost in three ICC finals in the last five years.
Sri Lanka will have watched Friday’s one-way traffic with keen interest. The pitch at the Premadasa was the best it has been for batting since the Super Eights began at this venue on September 28, allowing the big boys in the West Indian line-up to unleash such mayhem that Australia, a supreme competitor itself, was left scurrying for cover. A similar surface, and a similar batting display, will make the West Indies overwhelming favourites to win its first title since the ICC Champions Trophy at The Oval in 2004, though it is debatable if the pitch for Sunday will hold as few terrors for the batsmen as the one on Friday did.
Of course, such is the ferocity with which the West Indies attacks the ball that, especially in this format, it can completely take the pitch out of the equation. Saying that, the West Indies will be mindful that Sri Lanka possesses more by way of quality spin than Australia does, and therefore the challenges ahead of Chris Gayle and company will be a lot more demanding in the title round.
Friday reiterated the impact Gayle has on the psyche of his own team-mates, as well as the opposition. Stats will show that it wasn’t just Gayle who was on the charge. Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard all expressed themselves in no uncertain terms, but then again, they had the luxury and comfort of knowing that Gayle was at the other end, and capable of cutting loose at any instant. Gayle faced a little over a third of the deliveries bowled – 41 of 120 – but in that time, he made an unbeaten 75 as he batted through the innings in his characteristic new approach that isn’t anymore based around batting only at top gear.
How successfully Sri Lanka dismantles the Gayle threat will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the final. When the teams met in the Super Eights in Pallekele, Sri Lanka had clear plans for the giant Jamaican, who has allowed his frustration not to boil over throughout the tournament at being denied much of the strike in the Power Plays by his opening partner. Johnson Charles has failed to rotate the strike, playing out dot balls in a clutch and increasing the pressure on his partner, if Gayle is not immune to such mundane things. Nuwan Kulasekara produced an excellent slower ball that spun away from Gayle’s flailing bat, and the resultant under-edge was well held by Kumar Sangakkara. The West Indies was never in the game after that as Sri Lanka surged to a nine-wicket victory.
That result will have no impact on Sunday, though both teams will have taken useful tips on board from that match. What kind of plans the West Indies formulates against Ajantha Mendis and potentially Akila Dananjaya – Mahela Jayawardena has a tricky choice to make between the young man and Rangana Herath, who had a brilliant game against Pakistan but whose left-arm spin could so easily play into Gayle’s massive hands – will be interesting to watch, especially if there is assistance for the spinners as is widely expected.
All three of Sri Lanka’s losses in ICC finals since 2007 have come overseas – in Bridgetown (2007), Lord’s (2009) and Mumbai (2011). In front of its own fans, a boisterous bunch that can drive the team forward with its energy and enthusiasm, it will be a completely different proposition, all fired up and determined to end a trophy drought extending back to 1996. It wouldn’t have been lost on Sri Lanka that the West Indies’ decidedly weaker suit is its bowling, the presence of Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree notwithstanding. Or that while the West Indies is quite unstoppable when it does the front-running with the bat, it is less of a powerhouse when it is forced to rebuild, and particularly if Gayle goes cheaply.
In the end, perhaps, that’s what it boils down to – how effectively Sri Lanka responds to Gayle. If it can knock over the big man early, it will be advantage Sri Lanka. If it can’t, then there could be more heartache for one of international cricket’s most consistent limited-overs outfits.