The contrast between the start of Sri Lanka’s innings and its finish was stark. With Zaheer leading the line, India restricted their opponents to 31 for 1 in the mandatory ten-over Powerplay, their lowest total of the tournament to date, below the 42 for 2 that they had made in their group-stage defeat against Pakistan. But then, at the death, the same attack was battered for 63 in the batting Powerplay, with Zaheer’s final two overs being butchered for 17 and 18 respectively. Thisara Perera, in his first match for almost a month, set the seal on a stunning turnaround with 22 from nine deliveries, including a last-ball six that was battered from a good length over midwicket.
For an occasion of this magnitude, cool heads were the order of the day, and until Jayawardene trumped his efforts, no man in the stadium seemed cooler than Zaheer. His exemplary first spell realised seam, swing, pace and bounce, all allied to an immaculate line and length, as the hapless Upul Tharanga was tortured to the tune of two runs in 20 balls, before luring a fatal snick to slip where Virender Sehwag’s sharp snaffle epitomised a watertight Indian fielding effort. Then, when he returned in the 37th over, Zaheer deceived Chamara Kapugedera with a beautiful slower ball that was driven to short cover, on route to equalling Shahid Afridi as the tournament’s leading wicket-taker.
As one of five veterans from India’s last World Cup final appearance in 2003, Zaheer’s initial efforts could not have been further removed from the over-pumped performance he had produced against Australia in Johannesburg, in which he was cracked for 67 in seven overs, including 15 in the very first over of the game. This time, he did not concede that many until the end of his seventh over, but the speed with which his figures were vandalised was astounding. Though each of Jayawardene’s 13 fours was a classy stroke in its own right, none was better than the last of them, an inside-out cover-drive to one of Zaheer’s trademark outswinging yorkers, as he premeditated the late movement and filleted the ring of fielders on the off-side.
Alongside Jayawardene were two hard-hitting allrounders who have scarcely been called upon in the tournament to date, such has been the success of Sri Lanka’s much-vaunted top four. Nuwan Kulasekera was eventually run out for 32 by a direct hit from MS Dhoni with 13 balls of the innings remaining, but he received a pat of gratitude from his team-mate as he went by, given how brilliantly he had responded to the needs of the hour. And then, by the time Perera had finished his onslaught, the decibel levels in the Wankhede Stadium had plummeted.
It had been a different story at the start of the day, when the excitement in the stands managed to drown out Kumar Sangakkara’s call at the toss. After some confusion, with both captains believing they had won, the match referee Jeff Crowe eventually ordered a re-toss – which Sri Lanka won. And seeing as all but two of the previous nine World Cups had been won by the team batting first, it had the makings of a moment that would run and run.
At first, thanks to Zaheer, it seemed that India had done well to avoid taking first use of a seamer-friendly pitch. But inch by inch, Sri Lanka recovered the initiative. The mercurial Sreesanth was pressed into action because of the broken finger that Ashish Nehra had sustained against Pakistan, and conceded 52 runs in eight overs before Dhoni decided he could no longer be trusted. His first delivery led to a wildly over-optimistic lbw appeal against Tillakaratne Dilshan, for which he was warned to calm down by Aleem Dar, but despite a reasonably focussed start, the errors soon began to creep into his game.
It was Dilshan who loosened the early shackles with two fours in three balls in Sreesanth’s third over, before Sangakkara followed up with two in two – a premeditated pull and an effortless straight drive – in a fifth over that also included an official warning for running on the wicket, and a free hit that was slashed through third man by Dilshan. But before he could build his innings, Harbhajan Singh bowled Dilshan round his legs in his second over for 33 from 49 balls.
India had two early wickets for their efforts, but to crack Sri Lanka’s outer shell, three is the absolute minimum requirement, and with Sangakkara biding his time, Jayawardene crunched Harbhajan through point for four, before turning his attentions to Sreesanth, who was steered along the ground through third man, and the spin of Yuvraj Singh, who was belted through midwicket as he dropped short in his first over. On 48, Sangakkara suffered a rare lapse as he slashed at a wide ball from Yuvraj Singh to be caught behind at 122 for 3 in the 28th over, but thanks to Jayawardene’s masterclass, there was no way through for India. Agencies