Melbourne: Sri Lanka entered this match with their fate in their own hands. It turns out they are pretty safe hands which gave the team a 9-run win against Australia and a spot in the tri-finals.
Not even a hat-trick from Daniel Christian, a four-wicket comeback from James Pattinson, a captain’s half-century from Shane Watson or a remarkable late fighting fifty from David Hussey could prevent Sri Lanka from winning the last qualifying match at the MCG. Lasith Malinga led a strong bowling performance to complete Sri Lanka’s nine-run victory, which propelled them into the tri-series finals
No doubt Australia were disappointed, for they must now enter the best-of-three deciders knowing they have lost their past three games to their Sri Lankan opponents. But India would have been even more gutted. An Australian win would have sent Sri Lanka packing and secured India a place in the finals. Instead, MS Dhoni’s men will now fly home at the weekend, ending a disheartening three-month tour.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have a chance to win a tri-series in Australia for the first time at their ninth attempt. Their total of 238 at the MCG, set up by half-centuries from Dinesh Chandimal, Kumar Sangakkara and Lahiru Thirimanne, seemed a fraction skinny on what looked like a reasonable batting surface. But despite losing Thisara Perera to injury during his first over, Sri Lanka’s total proved defendable with Malinga in their attack.
Not that it was straightforward. Hussey’s run-a-ball 74 nearly snatched victory for Australia. They needed 10 runs from the final over, bowled by Kulasekara, but Hussey holed out to long-off from the first ball of it and Sri Lanka celebrated. They had been on top early, when Australia were 3 for 26 after Malinga and Kulasekara troubled the top order, but then Australia fought back.
Batting at first drop, the stand-in captain Watson – Michael Clarke was not risked ahead of the finals – led Australia’s fightback with a solid, composed 65 and he had good support from Michael Hussey (29). But once their 87-run stand was broken, Australia struggled again.
Michael Hussey has proven a handy partnership breaker with his slow-medium bowling recently and this time he was on the end of a similar ploy, as Thirimanne drew an edge behind that was well taken by Sangakkara. It was Thirimanne’s first international wicket and his second in all List A cricket, and importantly for Sri Lanka it was followed a few overs later by the departure of Watson.
Watson had brought up his half-century from his 61st delivery with a straight drive off Thirimanne and he had been strong when the bowlers had strayed too straight, but he was in no particular hurry. His innings, an encouraging one in his second match back from a long injury lay-off, ended when he played all around a fast, straight Malinga ball that knocked middle stump out of the ground.
David Hussey kept Australia afloat and did a fine job but his partners gradually dwindled. His fifth half-century of the series shot him to the top of the tournament run tally but it wasn’t quite enough for Australia, whose innings started with the loss of both David Warner and Matthew Wade, who had been reunited as the opening pair. Warner (6) slapped Malinga to short cover, a strange shot to a ball that sat up on him, and Wade was lbw for 9 to Kulasekara, before Peter Forrest tickled a catch behind for 2 when he tried to cut Malinga.
It was just the start Sri Lanka needed in the field after posting 238. The three half-centuries at the top of the order made for a lopsided scorecard as the lower order struggled, especially against Christian, who collected a career-best 5 for 31 and wrote himself into the record books as the first Australian since Brett Lee in 2003 to take an ODI hat-trick, and the fourth overall along with Lee, Bruce Reid and Anthony Stuart.
Christian was mobbed by his team-mates after completing the feat, which began when Thisara Perera skied a ball and was taken at deep midwicket by Michael Hussey, who caught the ball inside play, tossed it up before he fell over the rope and completed the catch after stepping back in. The ball had gone so high that the batsmen had crossed twice, leaving the new man Sachithra Senanayake on strike instead of the established Thirimanne.
Senanayake was lbw first ball and replays indicated the ball would have gone on to hit leg stump. The same could not have been said for the next delivery. Rod Tucker raised his finger to give Kulasekara lbw but the ball appeared to be sliding down leg side and replays confirmed it was a poor decision. Christian didn’t care. It was a hat-trick, and they are rare.
Thirimanne (51) was good enough to help Sri Lanka survive until the end of the 50th over, although he had fallen in the previous over when he played on trying to paddle sweep Pattinson. Rangana Herath remained on 14 not out and Malinga was bowled from the last ball of the innings to give Christian his fifth wicket, but by batting out their time Sri Lanka ensured that the efforts of Sangakkara and Chandimal were not wasted.
They had put on 123 for the third wicket and Chandimal was the more aggressive partner. He continued his good series and brought up his fifty from his 47th delivery with a glanced single off Clint McKay, before Sangakkara registered his in the same over from his 79th ball. Throughout his innings, Sangakkara had been in no hurry and didn’t score a boundary until his 55th delivery, when he punched Ben Hilfenhaus forward of point.
His runs came largely through ones and twos and it was an important stabilising performance after Sri Lanka were 2 for 17. Sangakkara fell for 64 when he top-edged a pull off Pattinson, and his departure slowed Chandimal down. Chandimal was out for 75 from 84 when he too was beaten by the pace of Pattinson, lobbing a ball to mid-off.
Chandimal had been willing to play his strokes and he brought the crowd to life with a muscular that sailed straight over the head of the bowler Christian and crashed into the sightscreen. Another followed off the spin of Xavier Doherty, over long-on this time, and Chandimal spent most of his time hovering around the run-a-ball mark.
As it turned out, the Chandimal-Sangakkara combination was just what Sri Lanka needed after Mahela Jayawardene was run out early thanks to a poor call by Tillakaratne Dilshan, who followed by edging Pattinson behind. At that point, Sri Lanka were wobbling. But they will enter the finals with stability, and form against Australia, on their side.