Vol. 5 Num 568 Sat. December 31, 2005  

More stakes than a win
NZ-SL first ODI today

A depleted New Zealand and out-of-form Sri Lanka are playing for more than a simple win in the one-day cricket series starting here Saturday, knowing defeat could deny them direct entry into the ICC Champions Trophy in India.

England also have a keen interest in the four-match series as their standing will also be affected by the outcome.

Only the top six ranked teams as of April 1 gain automatic entry into the Champions Trophy next October, with the remainder consigned to a further preliminary round of matches.

What gives the New Zealand-Sri Lanka series added spice is that the two sides are wedged into the tightly-packed middle section of the table.

New Zealand are currently ranked fourth and Sri Lanka sixth but both sides are on 109 points, along with fifth-ranked India, while England are one point behind and just outside the all-important top six.

A series clean sweep by either side will take the winner to 115 points, just behind third-placed Pakistan, but it will drop the losers to seventh, with England moving up.

New Zealand have a one-day series against the West Indies in February to further help their cause, but coach John Bracewell acknowledged they could make it easier on themselves by securing the points over the coming days.

"Our guys have already mentioned it," Bracewell said.

"It would be nice to be in the top six, and nice to be in the top three."

New Zealand won the Champions Trophy, cricket's second largest one-day tournament behind the World Cup, in 2000, but cannot be said to be in prime form going into the series with Sri Lanka.

The team is still smarting from the recent 2-1 series loss to Australia, with their only win coming in the final dead rubber when Australia played without any recognised frontline bowlers.

Sri Lanka are also in a trough, arriving in New Zealand from a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of India, and struggling to settle from their whirlwind travel schedule.

"It's pretty hectic. We only got back from India a couple of days before Christmas, had a quick Christmas in Sri Lanka before heading down here," said coach and former Australian international Tom Moody.

Moody now has a fully fit squad to call on including Sanath Jayasuriya, the 345-match veteran who was omitted from the ill-fated India tour due to a lack of form and fitness.

"Sanath's in good condition and he's now 100 percent fit to bat and bowl," Moody said of the star all-rounder.

"I think the bowling is an important part of his game. It gives him that all-round edge and another element of the game to lean on and he can get confidence from that."

On paper Sri Lanka have the stronger line-up with a top-10 world ranked batsman in Kumar Sangakkara, and Marvan Attapatu and Jayasuriya in the top 20.

Their bowling attack includes spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan and speedster Lasith Malinga, who caused trouble for New Zealand in the April Test series with his unique low-slung action.

New Zealand, meanwhile, will be without skipper Stephen Fleming, who has taken paternity leave, and pace bowler Andre Adams, who injured a hand in training this week.

Without Fleming, New Zealand's two top-ranked batsmen are all-rounders Scott Styris (36th) and Chris Cairns (37th) with the specialist top-order players languishing further down the ladder.

New Zealand appear in a healthier position when it comes to bowling resources, with five players in the top 30, led by spinner Daniel Vettori in fifth place, one behind Muralitharan, and a fit-again Shane Bond in 14th.

This will be Bond's first one-day international on home soil in nearly three years after the 30-year-old was struck down with a series of injuries.

He took some punishment when he returned to the international scene during New Zealand's 4-0 series loss in South Africa in November but is confident his firepower is ready to return, with more game time in domestic cricket since then.

"I'm probably not bowling my best at the moment, but I'm sure I'll find that form over the series," said Bond, who has the impressive average of 18.75.