A battle between a tiger and a lion

2011-04-02 00:00

AFTER seven weeks of slow progress followed by a sudden rush of matches which left both finalists looking weary and sore, the two best and most entertaining teams in the tournament, India and Sri Lanka, arrived in Mumbai with a single aim in mind — capturing the World Cup and so securing glory for their country and cricketing immortality for themselves.

It is going to be quite an occasion, a contest between an audacious side who play with purpose and a powerful outfit intent on conquest. It’s a battle between a tiger and a lion. More­over the contest pits greatest batsman of the era against the greatest bowler still running around. Both champions are highly motivated; the run maker yearns to play in a World Cup-winning side, the tweaker is eager to go out with a bang.

India and Sri Lanka have much in common, a reliance on spin, a captain who also keeps wicket, a population devoted to the game and a great player approaching the end of his career. If India are the likelier winner sit is because their batting is longer and stronger. No team, it is true, have won a World Cup on their own patch but, then, nor has the home side ever stood out. In any case Indian cricketers are used to pressure, live with it day and night. Just moving from their team bus to the plane in Chandigarh took them through hundreds of cheering supporters packed into an airport designed for a few dozen.

So far India have not produced their top form. Perhaps it will appear in the final, when a team can stop looking back and start looking forwards. The closest India came to a complete performance came against South Africa when Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir took the score to 1/267 in 39 overs. Then madness took hold in the powerplay, the batsmen lost their heads, nine wickets fell for 29 runs and the match slipped away. It won’t happen again.

Of course all India hopes that Tendulkar will score his 100th international hundred on this great stage. To attain the landmark in his own backyard is the stuff of dreams. Local critics complain that he falters at the critical moment, not least in the first over of the 2003 final as India chased a vast Australian total. But by then the match had already been lost. In that same event, too, he revived his team with a telling hundred and then took them to the final with a stunning display against Pakistan. Considering his contribution, it is a harsh judgment. Still, a telling innings would not go amiss.

Not that India depend on him. Sehwag scored an outstanding hundred in the 2003 final and has runs left in him. Dhoni’s form has been patchy but his temperament is as sturdy as his forearm. The younger batsmen, too, appear confident and competent. Previous Indian sides have suffered from poor fitness and fielding, but this outfit looks sharp in both respects.

India’s attack, though, is less threatening than their opponents’. Zaheer Khan is the only Indian flinger capable of changing the course of a one-day match. The rest of the bowling is serviceable. Harbhajan has ditched his doosra but remains a fierce competitor. Ashish Nehra has broken a finger and might not play so Ravi Ashwin might be recalled after his surprising omission.

If Sri Lanka are the likelier losers it’s because the middle order batting has been patchy and injuries have taken a toll at the worst possible moment. Murali is starting to resemble a stock car after a particularly contentious race, while Angelo Matthews was ruled out with a strained leg muscle on Tuesday. So dire is the position that the think-tank has called up Chaminda Vass, the veteran paceman, and Suraj Randiv, a handy off-spinner.

Ably led by the senior players — Michael Clarke could learn a lot from Kumar Sangakkara’s inclusiveness — and ably guided by Trevor Bayliss (both coaches will be at loose ends after this match), the Lankans might find this match beyond them. By the look of things their luck has run out a few days too early.

If everything falls into place, fitness and form, the visitors are quite capable of causing an upset. And it’d be no more than they deserve because they play with an abundance of spirit and regularly take the bold path.

The line-up includes outstanding players, varied bowlers and unyielding competitors. Sri Lanka have been preparing for this event for 12 months and a place in the final is the least of their deserts.

But it’s hard to avoid feeling that it is going to be India’s day. By and large World Cup finals are won by great players and rising teams. Dhoni has the more powerful line up at his disposal, and fewer headaches. As far as the independent observer is concerned, though, the outcome hardly matters. Although slow, this CWC has surpassed expectations and, whatever the result, will produce worthy winners.

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