Cricket: Bowlers the key to semifinal success

By Richard Boock

You can just imagine New Zealand's batsmen feting their bowlers today, fanning them with palm-fronds and peeling their grapes, all the time thinking of Wednesday's World Cup semifinal showdown against Sri Lanka.

If ever a batting order needed their bowling attack to be on-song for one particular game of the millennium, it's the combination belonging to the men in black, two days out from the biggest challenge of their lives.

And to be fair, they have a number of reasons to be nervous, not least the recurring nightmare from Saturday, when their attack - Jeetan Patel apart - gave a decent impression of a group of Sunday pub trundlers.

Sri Lanka's batting might not run quite as deep as Australia's, but they pack plenty of punch in the top order and have already laid waste to the New Zealand bowling on one occasion, in the Super Eights contest at Grenada.

But if the weekend's humiliation reminded us of anything, it was of New Zealand's historical struggle against spin bowling, and their utter cluelessness against anyone who threatens to turn it both ways.

Brad Hogg's effort in Grenada - admittedly backed by a massive total from his batsmen - confirmed this once again, the left-armer bamboozling the middle- and late-order batsmen and ending the day with four for 29.

English cricket writer Martin Johnson once said of Robin Smith's weakness against the twirly stuff that he resembled a "new-born foal on roller-skates", and the description seemed equally apt for New Zealand on Saturday.

It's a harsh critic who would blame the New Zealand batsmen for not running down a total of 348 but Hogg's heaven spotlighted one of the team's biggest weaknesses, and it's a fair bet the Sri Lankans are already on to it.

Put under pressure by a challenging total on Wednesday, the last man on earth the New Zealand batsmen will want to see is Muttiah Muralitharan, and his supporting cast of part-timers - Sanath Jayasuriya, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Russel Arnold.

Craig McMillan has already conceded that neither he nor his batting colleagues can pick Muralitharan's wrong 'un, and they know a steep total will demand more risks against him, and by definition the likelihood of wickets. And that's why New Zealand's best chance of winning their first World Cup semifinal is with a top-drawer bowling and fielding effort, to ease the batsmen's burden against Muralitharan and his slow-bowling friends.

New Zealand will be encouraged by the probable return of spearhead Shane Bond and the almost certain return of all-rounder Jacob Oram, and therefore will be confident of a better bowling performance.

But it's doubtful they'll be quite as confident about Mark Gillespie or Michael Mason, even if the pair were to recover from their mental scars quickly enough to be considered for selection.

Hope too, is likely to spring eternal among the batsmen that coach John Bracewell will retain Patel, despite suspicions that the Sabina Park pitch will offer more bounce and tempt him to play only one spinner.

On the strength of the effort against Australia, if Jayasuriya or Kumar Sangakkara were to start cutting loose on Wednesday, New Zealand would be much better served by Patel's accuracy than the blind-man's-bluff routine of the others. In fact, if any of the New Zealand bowlers deserves to be pampered by not only the batsmen but also the tour selectors today, it's the little off-spinner from Wellington.

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