First semi-final today
He was just a 10-year-old boy when Sri Lanka won the 1996 ICC World Cup under the leadership of Arjuna Ranatunga, but the memory of that glorious day is still fresh in the mind of Jayantha Silva, a cricket-crazy fan who has since been waiting to celebrate a success like that. It was just last year that India broke the hearts of millions like him. Sri Lanka were strong contenders to win the 50-over World Cup in 2011, and all but won the final against India in Mumbai if not for Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni’s brilliant efforts.
The hosts have not yet managed to corner global glory in the shortest version of the game. The closes they came was in 2009 in England when Pakistan, their opponents in today’s semifinal, cast them aside in a one-sided final, winning the match by eight wickets. Sri Lanka have been quite unlucky in this regard, losing three ICC finals as they were also denied by Australia in the 50-over World Cup final in 2007, but everybody in the country has a firm belief that Mahela Jayawardene & Co can emulate the glorious triumph of the 1996 ODI World Cup.
The hosts are now just two matches away from giving their fans an occasion to celebrate, but they might face their biggest challenge today when they meet with a fearsome Pakistan in the first semifinal of the ICC World Twenty20 at the R Premadasa International Stadium.
“We are still two games away from getting to that title. We are extremely proud to be a part of a group that has been consistent throughout the tournament. When you look back, even though we haven’t won, for us to be in those situations and push hard is great. That’s why we have been very consistent. You can take a lot of positives that we have done well in big tournaments. Yes we haven’t won any of those and it’s a bit of a disappointment. But we have to be in those big tournaments and if we keep getting there we will win,” said Mahela when asked about their good performances in ICC events during a pre-match press conference at Premadasa yesterday.
The Sri Lankan skipper was quite confident despite the fact that their opponents have an edge against them. Pakistan have won six matches out of nine T20I clashes against Sri Lanka and they are well-accustomed to the conditions at Premadasa where the home side is yet to play a match in this tournament. And the venue has not been a happy hunting ground for the home team in T20Is — they have lost all four of their matches here, one each against India and Pakistan and two against New Zealand.
“We have played different opponents actually. In some of those T20s we tried new players and new combinations. Kumar (Sangakkara) and I didn’t play a couple of those games. So it’s hard to read into something like that. We played good cricket in the tournament and right now we don’t have to cast our minds back so long. We need to take the positives out of the last few games and approach a semifinal. Those are the thoughts that will be in the players’ minds. I am proud to lead a team like this. We have a good blend and hopefully we will keep improving,” assured the soft-spoken Lankan captain, who defended his decision of sending Sangakkara to lead the team against England in the last Super Eights match at Pallekele (because Jayawardene wanted to avoid suspension in case of being charged with a slow over rate) and hinted that it may happen today again to avoid suspension in the next match.
Mahela hoped that it will be an exciting contest between the teams, who are equal in strength be it in the bowling or batting department, and he was also not ready to consider anybody av mystery spinner whether it is Ajantha Mendis or Saeed Ajmal.
“We have played each other quite frequently and there have been good contests. We have some quality spinners and we play spin quite well. We need to make sure that we execute certain things properly as well. It’s going to be an exciting semifinal against a quality opposition,” opined Mahela.
“Saeed Ajmal and Ajantha Mendis have been playing for five, six years now and I am not too sure whether there’s any mystery left. A lot of the guys have played them. They are quality spinners. People have seen videos of them and the important thing is that it is a big game for everyone, not just for those two guys,” he added.
Whatever happens today one thing is for certain — Mahela’s men will get partisan support from the crowd who are madly in love with its cricketers and who, like Jayantha Silva, will be rooting for a success they last tasted in 1996.
-With The Daily Star input