Hopefully, Younis Khan was watching tonight. Right up until the Sri Lankans had clinched victory, the camera kept panning to Muttiah Muralitharan in the dug-out. He rocked gently back and forth, nervous as a teenager before a date, and the celebratory jump over the hoardings when a Mitchell Johnson wide ended the game would have made the physio grimace. Try telling him that Twenty20 cricket is just “fun” or that winning doesn’t matter. As Sachin Tendulkar said after the Mumbai Indians’ early IPL exit, every game that you play counts for something. Else, you’re cheating those coming through the turnstiles.
Sri Lanka were superb today, and fully deserve to go through to the Super Eights. Once again, Australia were poor and the frailties against spin exposed by Shahid Afridi in Dubai not so long ago were thoroughly exploited by Ajantha Mendis. But for Johnson taking 21 off Murali’s final over – he had been immaculate till then – this would have been a rout. As with most batsmen who face Mendis for the first time, most of the Australians simply had no idea which way the ball was going to turn. With the unknown Isuru Udana also picking up two wickets, Australia were just caught cold. Lasith Malinga didn’t bowl particularly well, and Farveez Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara stayed on the bench, testament to the strength in bowling depth that the Lankans have.
The big question mark was always going to be their batting though. Sanath Jayasuriya is increasingly beginning to resemble Muhammad Ali in his Trevor Berbick phase, a fighter who has no rounds left in him, and there remain plenty of questions about the lower middle order. But while Jayasuriya has regressed, Tillakaratne Dilshan has become one of the leading exponents of the T20 game. Anyone that doubts the value of the IPL experience only needs to look his way. Having starred in the Delhi Daredevils’ campaign this year, he thrashed 53 from 32 balls to set up Sri Lanka’s victory charge at Trent Bridge. The only reason he didn’t win the man-of-the-match award was because Kumar Sangakkara’s half-century was pure class.
Australia’s bowling was all over the place. Brett Lee bowled 15 dot balls, but was carted for 39 from his remaining deliveries. Shane Watson, so inspirational for the Rajasthan Royals last year but kept away from the IPL this year, bowled filth and was treated accordingly. Australia may feel justified in prioritising the Ashes, but it’s no secret that the outstanding teams in the competition so far – India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies – all had a healthy IPL presence. By sacrificing that, Ponting and friends can now look forward to two weeks in beautiful Leicester.
Last week, I wrote that Sri Lanka would be the pick of the Asian teams, and I saw nothing today to make me change my mind. As long as the batsmen perform half-decently, they have the bowling arsenal to take out any side. Murali could be rocking another fortnight, while those that have disrespected this competition and this format explore the English countryside or take flights back home. Good riddance.