Cardiff: India and Sri Lanka will clash in the semifinals of the ICC Champions Trophy here on Thursday in what will be a repeat of the 2011 World Cup final in Mumbai. Unbeaten in the group stages, India will be the fancied team on paper but the Lankans are on the ascendency after defeating both England and Australia en route to the semifinals.
While India were the first team to make the round of last four from the tournament's Group of Death with an all-win record, Sri Lanka grabbed the last semifinal berth on Tuesday after warding off a late challenge from Australia. The 20-run win against the Aussies at The Oval enabled the Lankans to finish level on points with England, but an inferior run-rate pushed them to No. 2 and earn a date with India at Sophia Gardens.
For the Lankans, the clash against India will be a grudge game of sorts. In the final of the 2011 World Cup at the Wankhede, India outclassed co-hosts Sri Lanka by six wickets, easily chasing down a 275-run target, with skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni laying the coup de grace with a towering six off Nuwan Kulasekara.
While Sri Lanka have retained the core of that 2011 World Cup Kumar Sangakkara-led squad here at the Champions Trophy in UK, the Indian team has seen an influx of new blood after Sandeep Patil replaced Krishnamachari Srikkanth as chief selector in September 2012.
Only Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and R Ashwin are the remnants of the victorious World Cup squad and the arrival of a set of precocious youths like Ravindra Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan have had a telling impact on overall team performance, especially fielding.
The Indians have been on song ever since landing in UK for the Champions Trophy. The Lankans were the first to face the heat, losing a warm-up game in Birmingham on June 1. India flexed their batting muscle, easily chasing down a 334-run target with five wickets in hand and six balls to spare. Kohli and Dinesh Karthik scored hundreds, virtually toying with a matured Lankan attack, spearheaded by Kulasekara and current skipper Angelo Mathews.
India's batting domination has been eloquently clear in this competition. They have scored over 300 runs thrice in five matches, twice batting first. Against the West Indies in a group B fixture, India easily chased down a 234-run target with eight wickets in hand and in a rain-hit game at Edgbaston, dismissed an off-colour Pakistan by an identical margin (D/L method).
Sri Lanka, by contrast, have got better with every game. After losing a low-scoring thriller against New Zealand at Cardiff by a wicket, Lanka bounced back with a commanding seven-wicket victory against England at The Oval. The Lankans did have some anxious moments against the Aussies but the 20-run win would have given the islanders a big shot in the arm ahead of the semis.
While India's batting revolves around a clutch of young men like Shikhar Dhawan, Kohli and Karthik, who have taken the world by storm with their euphoric stroke-making and natural belligerence, Lanka continue to profit from salty old pros, who still swear by the old charm of silken touch and classy stroke-making. Sangakkara proved that against England with an unbeaten 134 that had grace written all over it. And Mahela Jayawardene showed why he is still an artist with an exquisite 84 not out against a desperate Australia at The Oval.
Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan will remain central to Sri Lanka's batting and with several young and explosive youngsters like Lahiru Thirimanne, Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal packing the middle order, the match against India should be a contest between quality batsmen.
A fresh new track is being laid by the Glamorgan ground staff at Sophia Gardens for the semifinal. Chief curator Keith Exton says 280 should be a par score but 300 will be very safe. With overcast conditions expected on Thursday, the seamers should get the early advantage but batsmen who have been patient and respected the conditions have stood to gain in this Champions Trophy.
India and Sri Lanka have clashed in the Champions Trophy final in 2002 in Colombo, not once but twice! On successive days, rain played spoilsport and for the first time in the history of a major ICC tournament, the title had to be shared.
But come Thursday, neither history nor the result of a warm-up game will have any consequence. As Jayawardene said on Tuesday: "Warm up games or whatever, it doesn't count right now. It's a big tournament. It's the semifinal... I'll be desperate for to win, (as) simple as that." Hot and happening India are equally upbeat and will match the Lankans, eyeball to eyeball. The battle lines at Cardiff are drawn!