Australia and Sri Lanka meet in the semi-finals of a World Cup described by Sir Paul Condon as the most honest ever played. This is not the least attraction of an odd tournament that has managed to retain the interest of black Africa, the subcontinent and Australia till the end. Happily, the western powers responsible for subverting the competition have been eliminated, a fate richly deserved after their disregard of the interests of other nations. Condon maintains that previous World Cups have been compromised, but regards this eighth version as beyond reproach. Whichever nation wins will have done so fair and square.
Ricky Ponting's team has been waiting for this day of reckoning for about a month. Meanwhile, other teams have been fighting to avoid catching early flights home. Accordingly, the Australians face the challenge, unusual in such a prestigious tournament, of trying to maintain their edge. To this end they have played their strongest side at every opportunity, which is right for a variety of reasons, not least that winning is a habit besides which caps ought not to be given away willy-nilly.
After winning all their matches, most of them in style, the Aussies must feel the Cup already belongs to them. Instead, they find themselves pitted in a sudden-death match against a team that has scrambled to reach this stage. Now they must face the Lankans on a pitch they regard with the sort of suspicion Alsatians reserve for postmen. If the Sri Lankans could nominate a place to play the Australians they would choose Colombo, but St George's Park might finish a creditable second.
Rather than allowing such considerations to affect their thinking, Ricky Ponting's side must approach the contest with the same gusto shown throughout this competition. A team that looks backwards inevitably falls over. Ponting's men have nothing to fear and an awful lot to gain. Of course, the pressure will be intense but it will be felt evenly in both camps. Everyone is desperate to play in a World Cup final. No one remembers sides that lose in the semis, unless reaching that stage was beyond the wildest dreams of the most ardent supporters whereupon the experience becomes the stuff of folklore.
Australia has far more strong points than its opponent. Whereas the Lankans rely on a couple of admittedly dangerous bowlers and a handful of batsman, the holders can attack from almost any position. Almost all of the Australians are in form and when things go wrong, as happens from time to time, the lower order has saved the day. If the Australians start well then victory is in the bag, because they are strong front runners. If wickets fall, the side has the spirit and skill required to fight back. The best has not been seen of Darren Lehmann in this tournament whilst Ricky Ponting has runs left in him.
Amongst the bowlers, Brett Lee has improved enormously and Brad Hogg has been the best spinner in the tournament. It's hard to see this attack being collared by anyone except a certain Indian gentleman expected to open the batting in the final.
Sri Lanka depends upon a breakthrough from Chaminda Vass and Murali's ability to take wickets. Vass is not a demon. If the ball does not swing he is ineffective. Murali commands respect, but the Australians are used to him and can work him through the leg-side. Sri Lanka has two strapping fast bowlers that hit the pitch but tend to drop short. Patently, the bowling can be taken apart.
The Lankan batting is inconsistent. Sanath Jayasuriya is a fine captain and all-rounder, but has a sore hand and has lost confidence with the bat. Aravinda De Silva looks fit and has been holding the middle-order together, but he often departs leg before early in his innings. India's pace bowlers were too hot for these fellows to handle and the memory is bound to linger. The Sri Lankans are bound to be nervous and Ricky Ponting's side can take advantage of their hesitancy.
Sanath Jayasuriya's team did not expect to reach the last four of this World Cup. Already the team can go home with its head held high. Since Christmas, a remarkable change has come over an outfit that lost heavily to Australia 'A' in Adelaide a few weeks ago. Now these same men can hope to reach the final of the most important tournament in the cricketing calendar. Of course, the Indians have experienced the ups and downs of this game in an even shorter period. A month ago their cars were being stoned.
Begging forgiveness of the large Sri Lankan communities located Down Under, Australia and India deserve to meet in the final next Sunday because they have been the best teams. Struggles between great players are the stuff of this and every other game. The opportunity to see Glenn McGrath opening the bowling to Sachin Tendulkar in front of a packed ground in Africa does not often arise. Before that Australia must defeat their persevering friends from the island of spices whilst India must overcome a Kenyan side that sorely worried the holders only to be let down by poor catching and, worse, captaincy from an inexperienced replacement.
Things could go wrong. Nonetheless, this tournament seems to have been heading towards a final duel between the brilliant, mercurial Indians and the thorough, destructive Antipodeans. If it happens, it will be a contest to savour. But the Australians will take each step at a time. They have travelled a long way and will not want to stumble with the end in sight.