Huw Richards, The New York Times: There is nothing like a little unpredictability to give life to a world championship tournament in any sport, but do not tell that to the Indian hosts of the Women’s Cricket World Cup.
Sri Lanka, widely expected to be the weakest among the eight competitors, knocked India’s highly rated team out of the tournament on Tuesday with a comprehensive 138-run victory in Mumbai. That means Sri Lanka will take part in the Super Six playoffs starting Friday, while India has to settle for playing for seventh place against Pakistan on Thursday.
The victory over India was not even the first time that Sri Lanka had turned the tournament upside down.
Sri Lanka won only four matches in its previous four World Cups, and none of them against the major powers in women's cricket. But it began its 2013 campaign last Friday with its first-ever defeat of England, which has won the tournament three times and is the defending champion.
"I can't think of a bigger upset in 40 years of Women’s World Cup cricket," wrote Alison Mitchell, a journalist with the BBC.
When Sri Lanka was crushed by 209 runs in its next match, by West Indies, it looked as if it was following the pattern of so many giant-killers, unable to follow up after a single brilliant performance.
It had, after all, never beaten India, and Sri Lanka could only save itself from elimination by beating the host. But batting first, it dominated from the start on Tuesday.
Deepika Rasangika, promoted up the order in spite of a previous batting average of 12 runs per innings, struck a brilliant 84. A ferocious late assault brought 92 from the final 10 overs, and Sri Lanka totaled a formidable 282 for 5 from its 50 six-ball overs.
India needed a good start, but instead it lost wickets and was struggling once its captain, Mithali Raj, was dismissed for 20. It could still have qualified ahead of West Indies on the net run rate tiebreaker if it had reached 251, but it never looked likely to achieve even that. India was eventually all out for 144.
"I can't believe it, actually," said Sri Lanka's captain, Shashikala Siriwardene. "It is a dream come true for me. We finished last in 2009 under my captaincy. So I am really relaxed and relieved.
"I am seriously super happy. This could be my last World Cup, and I wanted to do something special for my team."
Sri Lanka only started offering modest contracts and paying small match fees — $100 in the one-day international format used in the World Cup — for female players in 2011, but success has followed.
Raj, visibly devastated, said that she had not believed Sri Lanka was likely to score so many runs against India's bowlers. "All the bowlers were off-color today. I guess we can expect one or two to be off-color, but not all of them."
For India, the loss to its neighbor completes a miserable tournament as host. It began under the shadow of a furious denunciation by Diana Edulji, one of its most respected former players, over the way Indian women’s cricket is run by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
"I would say it was an insult to women’s cricket to be treated this way,” Edulji said. “There is no cricket. Domestic cricket comprises only one Twenty20 tournament and one 50-over tournament. There are no longer-format matches and no tests."
She was not alone in being angered, calling it "an absolute disgrace" when the World Cup was ejected on short notice from the Wankhede Stadium, the main venue in Mumbai and the site of the 2011 Men's World Cup final, so the final of the Ranji Trophy, the main men’s domestic competition, could be played there.
India won its first match against West Indies, but Raj made the mistake of criticizing England's bowlers before its next match. "Mithali's comments fired us up, to be honest," England fast bowler Katherine Brunt said after taking four wickets, including Raj, in a 32-run victory over the host.
Sri Lanka, England and West Indies join Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the Super Six stage. Each team carries forward the points from its matches against the other qualifiers from its own preliminary pool, and each will now play the three teams that advanced from the other pool. Australia starts with the biggest edge, with four points from victories over New Zealand and South Africa, while South Africa has no points. The other four have two apiece. The top two meet in the final on Feb. 17.
Sri Lanka will start the next stage facing two foes it has never beaten: New Zealand on Friday, then Australia, the five-time champion, on Sunday. If it stays true to its current form it will topple those giants, then stumble against the less-formidable South Africans next Wednesday. But even if it loses all three, Sri Lanka will already have left an indelible mark on this World Cup.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service