A young punk scored a punkish first century – the fastest by an Australian and one ball slower than the fastest by anybody at a World Cup, a master scored a classic third consecutive hundred – the first man to do so at a World Cup, there were five supporting half-centuries, but eventually the Sydney runathon was decided by Australia’s superior bowling and fielding under pressure. Glenn Maxwell finally got that hundred he has been promising to take Australia to 376, but Kumar Sangakkara‘s masterclass kept Sri Lanka in the game until Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews were eliminated – Chandimal injured and Mathews out to a slower bouncer from Shane Watson – in the 42nd over with 94 runs still required.
Matches between Test sides have been pretty formulaic this World Cup: bat first, score 300, win easy. Pakistan have bucked the trend by winning with 230 on the board, and Sri Lanka have shown 300 can be chased. With Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan in form, a 130-run stand in just under 20 overs told Australia this was not going to be an easy win. In the middle overs, though, Australia’s two gun bowlers, Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner, and Mitchell Johnson created enough pressure to take key wickets at the right times. Don’t go by the 64-run margin, this match was much closer. When Chandimal and Mathews counterattacked, this World Cup record chase was not far out of reach.
There is another World Cup record that is an endangered species. Every time Maxwell walks out to bat with overs to spare, a flurry of record-holders must watch from behind their couches and through the cracks between their fingers. It’s a minor miracle Kevin O’Brien’s record of the fastest hundred in a World Cup still stands. Maxwell might have missed out by one ball, bringing the hundred up on the 51st ball, but his knock was the difference between 320 and 376 after two mini wobbles – one at the top that reduced them to 41 for 2 and then the wickets of half-centurions Steven Smith and Michael Clarke in one go and just before the batting Powerplay. Watson scored arguably the most inconspicuous 67 off 41 with Maxwell taking centre stage.
The most instructive moment of Maxwell’s innings was perhaps near the end. He was on 99 off 49. Still with a chance to trickle one around the corner and register the joint-fastest World Cup hundred. Also with the knowledge that he had missed out on that elusive hundred at least four times in the past. He looked to nudge Lasith Malinga, missed a slower ball, ran what he thought was a leg-bye, but saw umpire Ian Gould in no hurry to raise his leg. Greater batsmen with many more centuries to their name than Maxwell have snuck in a single at such moments, but Maxwell seemed to instruct to Gould he hadn’t hit it. The leg-bye was finally signalled.
Obviously it has been frustrating for Maxwell to have not scored that hundred, but he wasn’t going to bring up his first in an underhand manner. Probably if you are in the form that Maxwell is, you know you are going to bring up that opportunity every other time you bat. When he came in to bat, with Smith and Clarke having fallen in the space of five balls, Maxwell had no business batting the way he did. This was the time to rebuild. Maxwell, he just watched six deliveries to get a hang of the conditions and chipped the seventh over mid-off for four, and reverse-swept the eighth for a single.
Apart from that reverse sweep, which surely is text-book stuff in Maxwell’s book, the initial parts of his innings were classic. He saw Tillakaratne Dilshan bowling with mid-off up, kept chipping him over the man in the 35th over, hitting two, a four and a six. There is a theory about Maxwell’s batting that he doesn’t bat according to the merit of the ball but to the field set. He is extremely confident that he can pull off any shot, but he fashions them to miss the field. This innings was a big testimony to the idea: there was no brute hitting involved, just clever placement of balls where the fielders weren’t.
To outsiders the shots Maxwell played in order to miss the fielders seem risky, to him they are routine. Legspinner Seekkuge Prasanna was the second bowler to experience it. First he saw Maxwell flick him over square leg for a six without bending his knee at all. Then came the reverse-flick in the same over, the 37th. In the next over Malinga bowled a yorker with a strong leg-side field, which Maxwell drilled over extra cover.
Prasanna in the 41st over saw more of it with Maxwell toying around with the deep fielder on the leg side. He beat him to his left first with a reverse sweep, then to his right with a delayed regulation sweep, and then again to his left with a slog sweep. The fastest hundred remained on the cards throughout with Malinga beginning the 45th over with Maxwell on 96 off 47.
One of the best bowlers at the death, Malinga denied him the boundary ball twice in a row, sending him off strike with his score 99 off 49. Then came the leg-bye. Only after Maxwell brought up the hundred, sparking wide celebrations, did everybody realise that Watson had made a successful comeback to the side. Watson had himself galloped along to 53 off 31 by then. That in turn had put to shade the rebuilding effort by Smith and Clarke from the early blip, a 134-run stand that underlined the importance of solid batsmen sandwiched between two sets of power hitters.
The 37-year-old Sangakkara, though, did all he could to usurp that innings. Dilshan began the Sri Lanka riposte with six fours off a Johnson over. Sangakkara followed it up with more classic batting. There might have been the odd ramp here or there, but the two batted traditionally, keeping abreast with the rate until Faulkner – a party pooper if ever there was one – intervened. He and Johnson strung together a spell of play where four runs came off 14 balls. The pressure was on, somebody was going to take a risk, and Faulkner was there with a perfect slower legcutter when Dilshan did, beating him comprehensively and trapping him leg-before.
Under more pressure Mahela Jayawardene took a risky single and Clarke – who had earlier dropped Dilshan – hit the middle stump from mid-off. Faulkner then produced another clever slower ball to prise out Sangakkara after he had enthralled the capacity crowd split down the middle when it comes to loyalties. Sri Lanka refused to lie down and take the beating. Chandimal and Mathews began to hit everything in sight, but Johnson came back to impart pressure again. Chandimal injured what looked like his hamstring, tried to keep running despite it, but had to eventually give up. Mathews’ fight came to an end soon, and with three Starc overs remaining there was just too much to go.
In a match where 688 runs were scored in 96.2 overs, Starc’s figures read 8.2-29-2. Between them, he and Faulkner went for 77 in 17.2 overs and claimed five wickets. That was where the game was broken. Australia were now almost assured the second place in their group, and were headed for a likely quarter-final against Pakistan in Adelaide.