By RICHARD BOOCK
New Zealand's hopes of qualifying for another one-day tournament final were dealt a crushing blow in the tropical heat of Sri Lanka late last night.
Needing at least one more win to ease their path into Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final, the New Zealanders blew their second-to-last opportunity in spectacular style, losing to Sri Lanka by 106 runs following their most inept batting performance of the tournament.
Required to chase down 222 in the rain-delayed 36-over shootout, New Zealand lost their entire top-order inside in the first eight overs and eventually crawled through to 115 for nine in their allotted overs.
An unpalatable fact was that Stephen Fleming actually won the toss and put Sri Lanka in.
The result was a double blow for the New Zealanders in that they not only failed to strengthen their claim for a shot at the title, they also took a hefty hit in terms of their confidence against Sri Lanka - who are now assured of one berth in the final.
New Zealand have at least simplified their criterion for qualifying for the tournament showpiece - their task is to beat India tomorrow night in what could end up as an unofficial semifinal.
Given the scenes at the Singhalese Sports Club ground last night, the signs are not altogether positive, although the tourists could point to their health problems over the past week as part of the reason for the slump.
They made a frightful start to their victory chase, crashing to 18 for five after losing Mathew Sinclair and Jacob Oram in the third over of the innings, Fleming in the seventh and Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle in the eighth.
Everyone departed in their customary fashion, except perhaps for McMillan, who was run out by a Mahela Jayawardene direct hit after being caught bone-idle at the non-strikers' end.
As for his top-order team-mates, Sinclair was trapped in front for the third time in five innings, Oram was caught at second slip off Chaminda Vaas, and Fleming and Astle both departed after playing leaden-footed wafts outside the off-stump.
From there on it was merely damage-control for the New Zealanders.
They were dragged through to some degree of respectability by the lower order, with Dion Nash, Chris Harris, Kyle Mills and Daryl Tuffey the only batsmen to reach double figures.
New Zealand have one win more than India, but that could change tonight when John Wright's side take on Sri Lanka.
If the Indians manage to win that game, that will set up a sudden-death showdown tomorrow night against the Kiwis.
While New Zealand's batting proved something of an eyesore last night, their bowling was not anything to write home about either, and failed to sufficiently restrict Sri Lanka's explosive batting line-up.
Unlike their opponents, Sri Lanka's top-order batsmen all made contributions, although Jayawardene's 58 off 46 balls possibly eclipsed the efforts of Sanath Jayasuryia, Avishka Gunawardene and Marvan Atapattu.
After scoring just 19 runs in his previous four innings, Jayawardene took full toll of the New Zealand attack, scoring four boundaries and two huge sixes off Harris and Nash.
New Zealand were guilty of bowling too full in the latter stages as Sri Lanka accelerated past 200 in the 34th over - the last 50 coming off just 33 balls.
Total (for 6 wkts, 36 overs) 221
Fall: 1/32, 2/89, 3/109, 4/165, 5/208, 6/211.
Bowling: D. Tuffey 3-0-18-0 wickets (5w), K. Mills 4-0-22-1, D. Nash 6-0-36-0 (1w), J. Oram 6-0-41-0 (1nb), C. Harris 7-0-39-1, D. Vettori 8-1-38-1 (1nb), C. McMillan 2-0-17-2.
Total: (for 9 wkts, 36 overs) 115
Fall: 1/3, 2/3, 3/16, 4/18, 5/18, 6/57, 7/57, 8/57, 9/83.
Bowling: C. Vaas 7-1-20-3 (1nb), D. Fernando 7-2-19-2 (9w), M. Muralitharan 8-1-21-0, S. Perera 4-0-24-0 (4w), K. Dharmasena 7-1-16-2, S. Jayasuriya 2-1-2-0, R. Arnold 1-0-2-0.
Sri Lanka win by 106 runs.
Points: Sri Lanka 8, New Zealand 4, India 2.
By RICHARD BOOCK