Colombo: If you listen to the many thronging the malls in the Sri Lanka capital, New Zealand should not have bothered to come and play their World Cup semi-final on Tuesday.
This is the general theme of the comments from a jingoistic crowd whose egos have been bloated by the 10-wicket win over a choking England at Premadasa Stadium on Saturday night. They suggest how the Kiwis are already "baked alive" in the Khettarama cauldron.
There was even one guy sporting a hangover as well as a Sri Lanka team shirt, who was suggesting how India should “concede and do the honest thing and hand the cup over to us now”. Forgetting, of course, there is still a second semi-final to play.
As Pakistan are India’s opponents and they have already beaten Sri Lanka, they get a surly scowl on their face and resume their thinking of how Daniel Vettori’s team will succumb as easily as did England. It really wasn’t a contest. England’s bowlers had no answers. The locals expect New Zealand will go the same way.
Not though if you listen to Ross Taylor the New Zealand vice-captain. They held an optional practice session and Taylor giving a toothy grin, suggests how he was looking forward to the semi-final. Not being reminded of course, how this is New Zealand’s fifth World Cup semi-final, and to get to this stage they performed the upset of the tournament by beating South Africa, who were tipped for the final.
Cricket though has a habit of turning games on their head and a team could be 101 for one chasing 150 and be dismissed for 130. It happens that way, and while the cliche term is choker, it is in fact how the sport is littered with such results. Someone tried to suggest the rain-affected semi-final in 1992 at Sydney was a choke without knowing anything about that particular match.
Taylor though said how New Zealand were not just wary of the Sri Lanka spin plan and the spinners, but they had learnt from the heavy defeat at Wankhede in their Group A game. They had also learnt from watching the game on Saturday night where Sri Lanka, batting second, won the game in a canter with centuries from man of the match Tillakaratne Dilshan and his partner Upal Tharanga.
"We are all to well aware of Sri Lanka’s strong points and are wary of their spinners," Taylor said. "We learnt a lot from our game against them, where we went wrong and why. It is why we will have a lot more confidence of how to handle them."
An entertaining batsman, Taylor added how they looked at the way England bowled against Sri Lanka and learnt from the errors. He didn’t specifically name the areas they looked at, but did suggest that they would be a lot better prepared than they were for the Group A game.
New Zealand had also earned a lot of self-belief from the win over South Africa, a game that many had predicted they would lose.
"We have learnt so much from this World Cup. We have come to know our strengths and weakness far better than we did when we first started, when playing and beating Kenya in that first game," he added, nodding and agreeing how teams playing in such conditions could be at a disadvantage.
New Zealand coach John Wright is another looking to take the positives out of the quarterfinal win and build on them as they seek to turn around their 112-run loss against Sri Lanka in their Group A game.
"Although We enjoyed the victory, we now need to move on," Wright said. "We have started again today, but we'll take this game and see where we get to. We're always looking to improve."
Although the bowling and fielding were superb against South Africa, the Kiwis had to dig deep at the batting crease after winning the toss and opting to bat. An improved batting performance against Sri Lanka would be crucial.
"We have to bat well, that's the key for us. I think the boys are learning, you need those wickets in hand going into the last overs and you set those targets. We'll look inwards and focus very much on trying to get better as a unit."
Wright described the team's efforts with the ball as "outstanding" after they struggled to build a total worth defending.
"We sort of scrapped as many runs as we could, which gave us a chance," he said. "Any side in big games, no matter who it is, if you get early wickets there's always going to be pressure."
Wright wasn't too upset with an on-field confrontation involving captain Vettori, drinks carrier Kyle Mills and South African batsman Francois du Plessis midway through the South African innings.
All three players were fined by match referee Roshan Mahanama for breaching the ICC's code of conduct relating to inappropriate and deliberate physical contact between players.
"It was reasonably interesting viewing," a laconic Wright said. "There was a lot at stake; South Africa-New Zealand fixtures in whatever sport, there's always going to be a bit of that sort of thing going on. It happened, it was dealt with."
Sri Lanka's semifinal spot was assured with a superb all-round effort from Tillakaratne Dilshan, who had to be helped out of the park afterwards, suffering from exhaustion.
The 34-year-old part-time spinner responded to new ball role by removing rival skipper Andrew Strauss in the eighth over to draw the first blood in the quarterfinal.
When the 1996 champions returned to chase down a 230-run target, Dilshan (108 not out) helped himself to his second century of the tournament, as did his opening partner Upal Tharanga (102 not out), against England's jaded attack to complete an easy 10-wicket victory.
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