Peter Della Penna, for ESPN
Whether it’s in the first match of group play against Canada or knocking off New Zealand to get back to a second straight final, Sri Lanka’s flair continues to flare at the World Cup. Sri Lanka is now one step away from winning it all, just as it did the last time the event was held in the Asian subcontinent in 1996. For any neutral fan, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Sri Lanka. There’s an intangible quality to the Sri Lankans’ play that makes them highly entertaining. Instead of producing mechanical players off a factory line in the way that a country like England does, Sri Lanka develops players who are unique — no two Sri Lankan players are ever alike — and that versatility is what has enabled it to become an elite cricket nation. Nowhere is that more evident than in fast bowler Lasith Malinga. Like Troy Polamalu, the diminutive speedster stands out for having a very distinct hairdo combined with unparalleled skills on the field. His unorthodox bowling action makes it hard to pick up the ball being delivered out of his hand while the pinpoint accuracy for all of his variations makes him just as devastating as Cliff Lee is on the mound. At 169 for 4 after 41 overs with Scott Styris and Kane Williamson in the middle, New Zealand was well placed to push for 250 or more when Malinga came on for his fourth spell at the start of the batting power play, but two quick wickets from him sparked a slide that ended with the Kiwis all out for 217. On paper, figures of 3 for 55 might not look all that special, but the fear factor Malinga puts in the mind of the opposition is priceless. There are a few bowlers with more pace, but Malinga is a player no one wants to face.
The unorthodoxy permeating through the Sri Lankan batting unit caused just as many headaches for New Zealand on Tuesday. Tillakaratne Dilshan was a fringe player valued mostly for his fielding up until a few years ago before mysteriously transforming into a devastating opener. He now wields his bat like a samurai sword, showing mastery and no mercy as he slices the ball to the boundary. He conquered the New Zealand attack to top score with 73 and is currently the leading run scorer in the tournament with 467 runs.
Along with Dilshan, captain Kumar Sangakkara also contributed another half-century of his own. While Dilshan used flash and dash to please the Colombo crowd, Sangakkara is a marvel to watch for the regal manner in which he takes charge of the game. When he’s at the crease, the match always looks like it’s in safe hands for Sri Lanka. Conversely, it was obvious when he got out with the score on 169 that New Zealand all of a sudden believed it had a chance to pull off another upset in the same way that it stunned South Africa in the quarterfinals.
Yet, just as things started getting nervy, another Sri Lankan batting style emerged for New Zealand’s bowlers to contend with, one based on attitude over technique. Angelo Mathews has the carefree spirit of a 23-year-old. In the space of three deliveries, that youthful zest produced two big heaves for a six and a four that snuffed out the last flicker of hope for the Kiwis.
Regardless of who wins the other semifinal between Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka should be considered the favorite for the final. While much fanfare has surrounded Sachin Tendulkar’s quest to finally claim his first World Cup, Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan is attempting to win his second before the 38-year-old retires at the end of the tournament. A World Cup title for Sri Lanka in Murali’s final match would be a fitting end to the event and to his career because no one embodies Sri Lanka’s ability to be unique more than the world’s leading wicket-taker.
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in “The Wisden Cricketer” and “Wisden Cricketers Almanack.”