Sample this: on any other day when New Zealand would take on Sri Lanka at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, there wouldn’t really be any doubt who is the one favourite for the game. Maybe New Zealand would win, after all the two teams do start equal. But that is a huge maybe and unless they upset the form book, or completely destroy the proverbial applecart, many people around the world might not even notice that Lanka have been beaten in their own den.
Now sample this: if in a tournament, the next day India are to play Pakistan in a high stakes match-up, then too not many people would pay attention to what else is going around two days prior. They would talk, wonder, dream and anticipate only about this epic battle and little else would matter. As one writes this, there are two days to go before this semi-final clash happens in Mohali. The hype though has already reached a crescendo and no one, absolutely no one, is even thinking about what is going to happen in the other game. It won’t matter to the people until their favourite team has made it to the World Cup final. Perhaps then they will look back, and wonder, how their opponents made it there?
The first semi-final on 29th March is no ordinary game though. It is not a match where Sri Lanka will go in thinking that they will walk over the opposition and catch a straight flight to Mumbai. It is not a match that doesn’t matter in the context of the humongous contest lined up for the next day. For, winning at Mohali may be termed ‘the final before the final’, yet the silverware will only be doled out on Saturday.
And one of the two teams competing then will be decided on the morrow. The hosts would do well to remember what they are up against. If Pakistan were a high flying team in international cricket last season, that would make New Zealand giant killers. That the former were not, doesn’t take away from the latter’s glory however. How many of us were willing to bet on this team reaching the World Cup semis back in autumn last year?
Remember it was a time when they were being drubbed not by India, but by Bangladesh. Then they went home and got beaten by Pakistan in their own backyard. When they showed up again, bruised and everything, Australia rubbed salt in their wounds.
They are still here though and it proves that they are mentally tough and resilient on the field. You may be playing at home, in favourable conditions and on tailor made tracks, but that is one virtue in the opposition that will negate your strengths to a large extent. Against South Africa, did it matter that on a sluggish pitch their batting nearly came unstuck against one of the best attacks in the world?
That their bowling only found teeth when the Proteas lost their nerve? In fact it is a moment that we should freeze upon - the one with the near-squabble between the two bunches of players. AB de Villiers had just been run-out and Faf du Plessis was getting some remarks from Daniel Vettori and his mates, and then the scenes got a bit charged up. After having suffered everything they did in the months leading up to the tournament, would you have expected them to fight it out street-style?
Fight they did and this is where the work of one John Wright should come in for heady praise. That man knows how to mentor cricketers and teams. Under him India in the 2003 World Cup made steady progress and they too had to dust off many cobwebs, despite considerable success. In comparison, at the risk of repetition, the Kiwis were down and beat. So if one were to pinpoint a turning point in their fortunes, it was the match against Pakistan and therein, Kamran Akmal’s dropped catch of Ross Taylor.
The carnage that followed will go down in folklore, yet the more important context here is of what the coach could have possibly said to his wards. That this is a team that lifts its game against bigger and better sides, they have that quality! Beat the Pakistanis and you prove your ability, and let us take it from there on! Is there a doubt that New Zealand didn’t follow these probable words?
The thing about encouragement is that such words can be spoken again and again, and Wright is but a master at it. Getting Vettori and his men up for the Lankan challenge wouldn’t be tough for him. Having said that, a mad man will bet against Kumar Sangakkar’s side trumping only if he were forced to place money at gun-point ahead of the game.
A top order that can score at will, the world’s best upcoming all-round talent who is looking to burst out with energy always, a spin attack that can wind any opposition into a web and a couple of fast bowlers who know their art well – that is how you would describe this Lankan side and as such they are pretty good not to be beaten by New Zealand at home. But stranger things have happened in cricket because there are weaknesses inherent in that line-up, naturally.
Their opening pair may have scored more runs than any in the competition but there is always the law of averages. If they fail, the batting is pretty much dependent on Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, and even Angelo Mathews alone cannot do much about it. Their group-stage encounter at Mumbai is evidence enough of such a collapse, just that the Kiwis weren’t prepared to zero-in then. Ever since, their rise has been for all to see. One could etch out weaknesses in their probable line-up too, but that’s of no use, for man to man they are inevitably lesser cricketers than their opposition.
However this is not a battle of talent. It is one of mind over matter.
© Cricket World 2011