Victory over balanced Sri Lankans would go a long way to helping NZ target T20 title
If New Zealand beat World T20 hosts Sri Lanka tonight in Pallekele they will have gone a considerable distance towards making their second top-four finish at this event, given weaker sides England and the West Indies follow.
The group points reaped from a victory would be significant but more important would be the confidence flowing from it. Anyone capable of defeating this Sri Lankan side is a contender for the title.
South Africa did it, but in farcical circumstances of seven-overs-a-side, courtesy of the monsoon. They might as well have staked the result on two raindrops racing down a pavilion wall. The same could happen tonight with the long range forecast indicating afternoon rain in Pallekele. Extending the match is not an option; it is a double header with England and the West Indies playing afterwards.
Compounding the problem is New Zealand's record against Sri Lanka in world limited overs tournaments. It is 20 years since they won a World Cup match and they've won one in three at World T20 tournaments; that was last time in Guyana.
Sri Lanka has a balanced side. With the bat, captain Mahela Jayawardene is one of seven players to have scored a T20 international century and Kumar Sangakkara was recently named the world cricketer of the year. They are backed by "Dilscoop" founder and 2009 World T20 player of the tournament Tillakaratne Dilshan and new find Dilshan Munaweera at the top of the order.
"Their top four batting is as strong as any team in the world," New Zealand coach Mike Hesson says. "Two guys play orthodox cricket in Jayawardene and Sangakkara. Dilshan and Munaweera supplement them as power players."
Lasith Malinga offers the key pace bowling threat, backed by the wily spin of Ajantha and Jeevan Mendis. Ajantha Mendis strained a muscle in his left side taking the best T20 international figures (six wickets for eight runs) against Zimbabwe in their opening match. He missed the bash against South Africa but is expected to return tonight after having a painkilling injection.
However, Mendis' threat is real. Zimbabwe made him look like a genius with some poor batting but the New Zealanders remain wary. In six T20s against them, Mendis has 10 wickets at an average of 12.60 compared to 46 at 9.84 in 22 matches overall. He has never failed to take a wicket against New Zealand in that format. His main weapon is the carrom ball, a bowling conjuring trick where he gives his opponent the middle finger - so to speak - flicking it out of his hand. The ball generally angles back towards off stump rather than breaking towards leg although variations mean it can go straighter. Hesson says while Mendis is dangerous, he can't dominate their thinking.
New Zealand can at least use some Sri Lankan counter-intelligence at their disposal. Last month's Sri Lankan Premier League saw Jacob Oram play with Munaweera in the champion Uva Next side while Nathan McCullum trained with Malinga pre-tournament at the Ruhuna Royals.
Black Caps v Sri Lanka
Kandy, 10 tonight
Andrew Alderson flew to the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka courtesy of Emirates Airline (www.emirates.com/nz).