The World Twenty20 enters the semifinal stage, with hosts Sri Lanka taking on Pakistan on Thursday, while Australia and the West Indies meet on Friday.
Sri Lanka is tired of being the bridesmaid at ICC tournaments. They’ve been losing finalists in the last two editions of the World Cup in 2007 and 2011 and were also second-best at Lord’s in 2009 when Pakistan memorably won the World Twenty20 title.
Sri Lanka will feel that this is their time. Intimate knowledge of home conditions is one thing, but more importantly Sri Lanka is on a roll, with comfortable wins against England and the West Indies in the Super Eights, and a character building Super Over win over New Zealand. They drew the easier of the two Super Eight groups which made qualification for the semi-finals a simpler proposition and things just look to be going their way.
They even got away with pretending that Mahela Jayawardene was not captain in the win against England, to protect him from a possible suspension due to a potential slow over-rate infraction. In the past few years Sri Lanka has distinguished themselves as true gentlemen of the game, but this latest move isn’t likely to get them on the ICC shortlist for the Spirit of Cricket Award.
Major cricket tournaments aren’t won through niceties. What the charade of having Kumar Sangakkara pretend to be captain did make clear, was how focussed Sri Lanka is on the job in front of them. Nothing is being left to chance.
Standing in Sri Lanka’s way to the Final is Pakistan, the only one of the four semi-finalists to actually win this tournament. For all the talk of Pakistan’s unpredictability, they are the most consistent team in the history of the World T20, having qualified for the semi-finals in every edition of the tournament.
Pakistan has never been particularly bothered by Sri Lanka and will fancy their chances in spite of the hosts’ good form, home conditions and passionate support in the stadium. With Abdul Razzaq finally being inducted into the team and lurking down the order, Pakistan’s batting now looks deep and dangerous, and the bowlers, particularly the spinners – look menacing.
This game does present some interesting match-ups, whether it’s the dual of the death-yorkers between Lasith Malinga and Umar Gul, or watching the craft of absurdly talented baby-faced rookie spinners in Sri Lanka’s 19-year-old Akila Dananjaya or Pakistan’s 20-year-old Raza Hasan. Sri Lanka and Pakistan know each other well and both will feel that this is a winnable game.
The second semi-final is likely to come down to a battle of the power hitters with the booming bats of Shane Watson and David Warner out to steal Chris Gayle’s thunder, just as they did when these two teams met in the group stages. It will not have escaped the West Indies notice, how Pakistan’s spinners managed to tame Watson and Warner on Tuesday. In Sunil Narine, the West Indies feel they have a spinner of the highest calibre too, and they will likely bring him on early to tackle Australia’s explosive opening pair. As the loss to Pakistan showed, Australia’s middle-order barring Mike Hussey looks vulnerable. If the West Indies are to win, they will need to get at that middle-order as soon as possible.
With all the focus on Chris Gayle and to a lesser extent, Kieron Pollard lower in the order, it is easy to forget Marlon Samuels, who for the past few months has been in tremendous touch. Samuels is a proper middle-order batsman, but he can reel off boundaries with the best of them. Even if Gayle falls early, the West Indies innings can still have momentum so long as Samuels is at the crease.
All things being equal, this match is slanted in favour of Australia in part because their bowling appears stronger than that of the West Indies. And yet all becomes moot if Chris Gayle manages to take over the game.
When the tournament began, a popular refrain was that any of the top eight teams could walk away as champions. This principle continues to hold true with the final four teams. The Super Eight stage was filled with exciting see-saw contests and that may be a harbinger of what awaits in the semi-finals.