This World Cup has produced occasional displays of good batting and fiery bowling, it has produced the odd nail-biting clash amidst a lot of mismatches, but it hadn't, yet, produced a moment you want to savor many years down the line.
Adam Gilchrist remedied that lack today.
Sanath Jayasuriya removed the wayward Pulasthi Gunaratne from the firing line and brought on Aravinda De Silva as early as the sixth over. The move was crucial. Though Chaminda Vaas was bowling with control at one end, Gunaratne was going for runs big time at the other.
Had De Silva also been hit around, Lanka -- whose lead spinner, Muthaiah Muralitharan, has often expressed his disinclination to bowl inside the first 15 overs -- would have been under the hammer.
Gilchrist, on song and batting beautifully, went down on one knee to the second delivery, looking to sweep off line of middle and leg. There was the faintest brush of ball against toe of horizontal bat before the ball hit the pad above the boot and ballooned up for Kumara Sangakarra.
The Lankan fielders appealed. 'No,' said umpire Rudi Koertzen very clearly. The disappointed Lankan fielders were preparing to get on with things, when Gilchrist shook his head -- and walked.
It was an incredible gesture, the kind that deserves to be celebrated in legend and song. The Australians don't believe in walking (except when the likes of Michael Slater or Justin Langer advocate it for opposing batsmen) -- to have the Australian vice-captain walk, in such a crucial game, was magnificient.
The rest of the cricket, all said and done, was pedestrian -- at least, as classic cricket matches go.
Sri Lanka and Australia both made crucial moves ahead of the game, that gave you an indication of the respective mindsets. While Australia brought back Ian Harvey and Andrew Symonds, Sri Lanka dropped Dilhara Fernando and included Mahela Jayawarene, extending its batting line to number eight.
The template was straight out of the Champions Trophy encounter between these two sides, when Lanka had gone in with just three regular bowlers backed by the likes of Upul Chandana, Kumara Dharmasena, Jayasuriya and Aravinda on the slow track of the Premadasa Stadium to force the win.
Matters proceeded according to template -- Australia, winning the toss and batting first as it had done then, got off the blocks in a hurry, racing to 34/0 after 5 overs, before Gilchrist displayed the kind of gallantry so rarely seen in cricket these days.
The wheels came off the Aussie cart around this point. Ricky Ponting, whose form has been somewhat patchy in the latter stages of the World Cup, was foxed by a lovely slower delivery by Chaminda Vaas straightening on off stump -- Ponting drove at it too early, and Jayasuriya at mid off held a good diving catch.
Mathew Hayden, like Ponting, has been struggling for form in this tournament, and getting out to soft dismissals. Here, he throttled back after the dismissal of Gilchrist and settled down to playing well within himself -- which is not how he likes to play. Another Vaas slower ball, angling on middle and leg, had Hayden flicking for Tillekeratne, placed at short midwicket specially for the batsman who has made a habit of getting out in that position, to hold well over his head.
That cued a thoughtful recovery, mounted by Darren Lehmann and Andrew Symonds who put on 93 off 136 for the fourth wicket (Symonds 59/79, Lehmann 32/57). Australia has in recent times made a fetish of going hard at the ball and, despite loss of wickets, trying to maintain a crackling tempo.
That kind of play on this kind of track would have been suicidal -- thus, it was interesting to see both Lehmann and Symonds put their heads down and focus on playing the percentages, tapping the ball around, concentrating on singles and not trying anything fancy while Jayasuriya rotated his spinners in rapid succession.
The progression tells the story of the partnership -- the two came together in the 13th over and went on till the 35th. Australia were 51/3 when Hayden went; 60/3 after 15; 82/3 after 20; 102/3 after 25; 119/3 after 30; 144/4 after 34.
In other words, it was percentage cricket. In the 29th over, with the score on 114/3 and Symonds on 33 off 51 deliveries, Kumara Sangakaara missed the easiest of stumping chances. Australia, 102/3 after 25, had been becalmed by tight bowling by Muralitharan and Jayasuriya, and managed just 12 runs in the next four overs.
Symonds, looking to break the shackles, came dancing down the track, failed to get to the pitch and was stranded as the ball spun past his bat. Sangakaara grabbed at the delivery, looking to whip the bails off before the ball had actually settled in his gloves, and ended up making a mess of the chance -- and effectively stymied Lanka's chances of finishing things off.
Symonds, working the singles nicely and opening out his broad shoulders only when the ball was in the slot, moved on to his 50 in the 33rd over -- and the 24 singles and 38 dot balls in his innings at that point is the clearest indication of the application he brought to his job.
Lehmann's nature does not provide for prolonged caution. Forced to play uncharacteristically, he made the occasional defensive mistake, and off the last delivery of the 35th over, one such mistake ended his patient vigil as he pushed at Jayasuriya's fullish length delivery, played over it, and saw it turn in from outside off to hit the top of off.
Off the first ball of his next over, Jayasuriya sent a quicker delivery outside off that Bevan tried to open the bat face and run down to third man -- only to find the ball nestling in Sangakaara's glove. Bevan seemed to believe he hadn't touched it, the umpire thought he had, there was some movement visible on the snickometer as the ball passed the bat -- and Jayasuriya found himself on a hat-trick.
Brad Hogg saved the trick, but neither he nor Ian Harvey managed to make headway against the slow paced bowling and perished in attempting to get a move on.
Andy Bichel, who apparently has some sort of talisman protecting him against being dismissed on this track, then came out and did his bit in a run a ball 37-run 8th wicket association that saw Australia -- which on this ground had twice before found itself in trouble and recovered to record 208 against Pakistan and England -- go past that mark and total 212/7.
Symonds paced his innings superbly, as did Bichel -- and Jayasuriya, who had handled his slow bowlers to very good effect, muffed up in the 49th over when he tossed the ball not to Arnold, but to Gunaratne. The second seamer had gone for 44 in 7 overs at that point -- with Bichel blasting him for a six and Symonds for a four, in between singles and braces.
213 was not much of a total to get -- if the Lankans could focus on batting through their 50 overs. The chasing team, however, came out with hara kiri on their minds.
Strangely, it was the normally subdued, correct Marvan Atapattu who seemed in a hurry. A fierce pull off McGrath in the first over, a slashing cut wide of point off Lee in the second were precursors to a frenetic fourth over. Atapattu straight drove Lee beautifully for four and, a couple of balls later, slashed at a delivery wide of off. Brad Hogg at cover got his hands to the ball and muffed the chance. The very next ball was a sizzling inswinging yorker -- the kind Lee uncorks ever so often. Atapattu, a Test batsman of high calibre, shelved defensive intentions and looked to work the ball away on the leg, and ended up playing all over the ball to be castled.
That wicket opened the floodgates wide. McGrath in the 9th over produced a slower delivery lifting from short of length and Jayasuriya -- who had come under considerable fire from Lee's lifting deliveries -- played the half-hearted pull of a batsman under pressure, and picked out Symonds at square leg.
Earlier, in the 6th over, Jayasuriya had responded to Lee's fiery pace by flicking a delivery around the 158.8k mark off his pads high over square leg for six -- a shot comprising three parts of beauty and one part of pure desperation.
The 10th over saw the end of Tillekeratne -- and again, it was a dismissal that could have been foretold. Twice in succession, the batsman pushed away from his body at deliveries angling across him and going harmlessly down the off side. By way of variety, he then drove at another angled delivery, bat well away from body, and this time got the edge through to Gilchrist.
Avishka Gunawardene had batted well in Lanka's previous outing -- but here, facing express pace (by then, Lee had worked himself into a lather and was hitting 160k), fear did the trick. The batsman stayed rooted to leg stump and pushed without getting his body in line, and another angling delivery across another left handed batsman produced another edge -- this time to Ponting at second slip.
Then came the moment that effectively nixed Lanka's few remaining hopes. Aravinda, who seems unable to stop scoring runs against the Aussies, was looking in good touch and Kumara Sangakaara was getting nicely behind the line to the quick stuff. It was incumbent on those two to produce a partnership -- but then, there was still Bichel.
Sangakaara played a delivery off his hips out onto the on side, the ball trickled to midwicket, seemingly out of reach of square leg and mid on. The batsman called, the 37-year-old Aravinda responded. Bichel in a flash ran over to the short midwicket region, fielded, paused, and hurled the middle stump down, clearly beating Aravinda and ending the master batsman's international career in an unfortunate fashion.
Mahela Jayawardene's inclusion in this side was a triumph of hope built over his talent over the experience of repeated failures. Facing Brad Hogg bowling beautifully, the batsman was lucky to get the benefit of doubt when he tucked his bat behind the pad and pushed in defense at a delivery on line of middle and leg. He tried that trick again in the next over, and this time the ball climbed off the pad, clipped the back of the glove, and lobbed up for an easy catch to Gilchrist.
Russell Arnold is rated one of the best finishers in international cricket -- here, he finished off the game as a contest. While Sangakaara looked increasingly assured, Arnold got himself bogged down. Given the situation, he could not expect to start hitting shots; the goal at that point would have been to focus on rebuilding, on batting through overs and keeping an eye on the fact that the target, all said and done, was not all that big (153 in 208 deliveries when he came to the wicket).
The obvious game plan was to focus on playing through the overs, rotating strike, chipping runs off the target. Instead, he kept pushing the ball back down the track or steering it to the fielders, and the innings became completely becalmed.
The damage his presence did is indicated by a single statistic -- when he came in, to face the 2nd ball of the 17th over, the score was 60/6. When he left in the second ball of the 25th over, the score was a mere 76. The partnership yielded 16 in 49 deliveries, of which Sangakaara contributed 13 in 22 against Arnold's three in 27.
Vaas (21/50), and an increasingly classy Sangakaara (25 in 34), then showed how it could have been done in an unbeaten partnership of 47 in 84. The period saw Ponting use his main bowlers almost to the brink of their quotas in an attempt to finish things off, before being forced to fall back on his fifth bowling combination of Harvey and Lehmann.
And then the dark clouds came scudding over St George's Park in Port Elizabeth; the rains came down, the covers came out as the players scurried back into the pavilion -- and the cameras panned to the giant scoreboard.
After 38.1 overs, it announced, Sri Lanka were on 122/7 -- and needed to be on 172 to win by the Duckworth-Lewis method.
It also announced the target score after 38.2, 38.3, 38.4, 38.5 and 39 overs (173), just to be on the safe side.
On March 3 at Durban, it was the failure of the organizers to flash the D/L par scores, coupled with the South African camp's incomprehension of the word 'par', that gave Lanka vital points and ensured their progress into the Super Sixes despite a defeat at the hands of Kenya.
Ironically, an Indian company headed by Dinesh Kumble, brother of World Cupper Anil, had before the tournament offered software that would enable the ICC to flash such details on the board, but the organizers turned it down as being needlessly expensive.
It took the exit of the home side and pre-tournament second favorites South Africa for better sense to prevail. On this occasion, it did not do much good, however. Lanka, beneficiaries on that earlier occasion, were behind par when the rains came down. With rain persisting, the umpires were forced to call off play -- and Lanka's scrappy progress in this Cup finally came to a halt, Australia being declared winners by 48 runs through the application of the Duckworth Lewis method, which said Lanka needed to be 172 at the end of 38.1 overs.
Australia made it to its third successive final -- at the expense of Sri Lanka, which had famously tripped up the Aussies in the 1996 finals.
And as you contemplated that result, you couldn't help but wonder if a basic rule of modern day jurisprudence does not apply to the Aussies. Quite a few nations, borrowing the baseball idiom, have a 'three strikes and you are out' policy. For your third offence, they lock you up and throw the key a long way away.
In this tournament and on this ground, the Aussies have offended by insisting on playing their hard driving game in conditions that called for patience. Thrice, they found themselves in trouble with the bat. By rights, they should have been locked up this time, for keeps -- instead, the defending champions bailed themselves out yet again.
Perhaps it is this ability, of never knowing when they are beaten, that mark the Aussies out as the team par excellence in contemporary cricket.