Sri Lankans Reach World Cup Final

Wednesday, April 25th 2007, 7:32 am
By: News On 6

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (AP) _ Mahela Jayawardene hammered an unbeaten century and Muttiah Muralitharan spun New Zealand out for 208 to take Sri Lanka into the World Cup final on Tuesday.

After beating the Blacks Caps by 81 runs in Jamaica, Jayawardene's team will face either two-time defending champion Australia or South Africa in Saturday's final in Barbados. The second semifinal is at St. Lucia on Wednesday with the Australians strong favorites to advance and go on to an unprecedented third World Cup triumph in a row.

Sri Lanka won't make it easy for whichever team reaches the final.

``We have been playing some really good cricket,'' said Jayawardene, whose team has a fine balance of fast scoring and experienced batsmen and standout pace and spin bowlers. ``We have a lot of belief in our batting lineup. We have a lot of guys who chipped in at this tournament.''

Chasing another title to go with its surprise triumph in 1996, the Sri Lankans hammered 102 runs off the last 10 overs at Sabina Park for a score of 289 for five against the Kiwis.

New Zealand, which has now lost five times in World Cup semifinals, made a big early breakthrough when opener Sanath Jayasuriya, who scored a century against the West Indies and is one of the in-form players at this championship, was out for one in the third over.

But Upul Tharanga shrugged off his poor form to hit 73 and Jayawardene recovered from a slow start to craft one of the best centuries of this championship.

Hitting 10 fours and three sixes, he effectively took the game away from New Zealand, whose bowlers were punished late in the game.

``We did hope we could restrict them to a score in the mid 200s but we didn't bowl well enough or field well enough,'' said New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, who announced after the game he was stepping down as one-day captain.

``Mahela played a superb innings and in the area where we would be good in the last 10 overs we were very poor.''

The Sri Lanka captain was helped by Shane Bond's dropped catch just inside the boundary when he had made 70. New Zealand's top strike bowler, Bond had a poor game by his own high standards and the dropped catch was made worse by the fact that he let it land on the boundary rope for a six.

When New Zealand went in to bat, Fleming was out for only one with two runs on the board and Sri Lankan paceman Lasith Malinga made a fool of Ross Taylor with repeated deliveries that flashed past the outside of his bat.

With New Zealand laboring at 32-2 in the 11th over, Peter Fulton and Scott Styris gave their team hope with a rapid 73 from the next 11. The Kiwis were helped by some wild bowling from Dilhara Fernando who had 45 taken off his five overs and was twice warned by umpire Rudi Koertzen for running too close to the batting line.

Jayawardene was effectively forced to take him off and the switch worked. Tillekeratne Dilshan's gentle offspin made the breakthrough when Styris hoisted a catch which Jayawardene gratefully accepted.

It was the start of a dramatic collapse of seven wickets for 44 runs as New Zealand went from 105-2 to 149-9. Despite a last wicket stand of 59 by Jeetan Patel, who scored 34, and James Franklin (30 not out) the end was inevitable and the Sri Lankans won with 8.2 overs to spare.

The Australians and South Africans each want to be fast off the mark when they meet in St. Lucia.

Ricky Ponting admits his defending champion team hasn't been tested in taking its World Cup winning streak to 21 games. None of its nine victories here have been close.

``We probably haven't been challenged as far as the closeness of games is concerned but we challenge ourselves,'' he said ahead of Wednesday's semifinal. We've got 100 overs tomorrow to challenge ourselves and win the game.

``At the 2003 World Cup we were really challenged and really under pressure. This time round we've played a brand of cricket right from the start that hasn't let the opposition into the game whatsoever.''

South Africa coach Mickey Arthur says his side, despite being beaten by 83 runs by Australia in the group phase a month ago, would be more aggressive going into the semifinal.

``We're looking to call the shots, hoping to come out firing and get that pressure first up,'' Arthur said.