It feels like only six months have passed since the opening game in Dhaka, but suddenly, and just as I was getting the hang of it all, this World Cup is about to end. 48 matches have been played, millions of air miles have been accrued by players, journalists and fans alike and Shastri, Morrison, Nicholas and co. are almost out of hyperbolic superlatives.
Yes, we really are on the brink. Only one more match stands between us and the terrifying prospect of having no cricket to watch until the IPL begins next Friday, but what a match it promises to be. The two pre-tournament favourites go head to head in Mumbai in a contest that will once more bring the entire Indian sub continent to a standstill.
If we thought Wednesday’s semi-final between India and Pakistan was the biggest match of the century we must now re-calibrate our hysteria monitors as the winners of the Mumbai showdown will have their exploits witnessed by, if the broadcasters are to be believed, the best part of 1.5 billion people worldwide.
All of India expects only one outcome; a fairytale victory for their boys with His Most Graceful Holiness, Sachin Tendulkar scoring a century and probably the winning runs into the bargain. It’s hard to argue with a nation of a billion people, but in a spirit of unbiased and genuinely thrilled neutrality, here are the ten key deciding factors which will determine the ultimate resting place of the 2011 World Cup trophy.
India have the best top seven in ODI history. Sehwag and Tendulkar are without doubt the finest opening partnership ever to have graced the game, and Viru in particular can win a match in half an hour of frantic mayhem. Yuvraj, despite his golden duck on Wednesday is in tremendous form and as long as he can lay off the extra helpings at dinner for one more night he should be in good shape for the final. With Raina coming in at 7 and even Harbhajan able to fling the bat, it will require a mammoth effort from the Lankans to restrict India to a gettable total. Therefore India must surely win.
Sri Lanka, however, possess in Dilshan, Tharanga, Sangakarra and Jayawardene the most in-form top four in the tournament. They have all scored hundreds in this World Cup and show no signs of slowing down. Unless Zaheer picks up a few early wickets it’s hard to see how India’s innocuous support bowlers can restrict Sri Lanka to a sufficiently modest total. Therefore Sri Lanka will most definitely win.
But India are playing at home in front of a wildly partisan and supportive crowd. Gone are the days when the home players had to dodge a volley of bottles and rotten fruit whenever a catch was dropped. Instead, thousands of hysterical fans will surely provide the motivation and impetus to take India across the finishing line.
However, with the match being played in Mumbai in a feverish atmosphere of expectation, the pressure on the home side will be enormous. Even the notoriously composed Sehwag and divine Tendulkar are, if rumour is to be believed, carbon based human life forms who will surely wilt under the pressure. Imagine Ashish Nehra or Munaf Patel being called upon to defend 12 runs in the last over with a full house of desperate home supporters demanding success. Even Buddha would wilt under the strain, so I can only see one outcome; a Sri Lankan win.
But India come into this match with two massively morale boosting wins under their belt against four times champions Australia, and the hitherto most consistent side in the tournament, Pakistan. They are conditioned for tough matches, have been tested to the maximum and have passed with flying colours. Nothing can stand in the way of an Indian win.
Sri Lanka, though, have breezed past England and New Zealand with overs to spare. They have handled the pressure of playing at home and waltzed to victory without alarm. They’re in great form, have momentum behind them and have had an extra day to prepare. Sri Lanka will therefore win at a canter.
In MS Dhoni India possess a wicket-keeper captain who knows with meticulous certainty his team’s strengths in the field. His brilliant use of Zaheer Khan, the premier seam bowler of the World Cup, has seen matches turned on their heads at crucial moments. Remember his first over in the batting power play against England who were cruising to a remarkable win before Bell was undone and Strauss bamboozled by a reverse swinging Yorker. Despite a curious unwillingness to pick Ashwin, Dhoni’s decisions have proved spot on with Nehra and Patel both impressing against Pakistan. His calm intelligent authority will keep his players grounded and propel his country to the ultimate glory.
However in Kumar Sangakarra Sri Lanka have a matchless wicket-keeper skipper who wears his genius humbly. A profound thinker whose wisdom stretches way beyond the parochial confines of the cricket field, he knows his team’s strengths and ruthlessly exploits them. Witness his inventive use of Malinga for only one or two overs at the top of the innings followed by his giddying rotation of his spinners that never allows the opposing batsmen to settle. His brilliant field placements in the knock out games suffocated his opponents and kept the pressure off what is a threadbare lower bating order by restricting the target to easily manageable proportions. He is the nearest thing the modern day game has to Mike Brearley and will inevitably walk away with the Cup.
The final will probably be the last World Cup match played by the finest batsman of his generation and most prolific international run gatherer of all time. Sachin Tendulkar will open the batting for India in front of a home crowd willing him to his 100th international hundred. With an average in excess of 55 in World Cups he is the player for the big occasion (contrary to eccentric and popular misconception) and it is surely written in the stars that Tendulkar will sign off in style hurling his nation into a dizzying fit of self-congratulatory boastfulness and sparking a party that will last until the next Ice Age.
But Muttiah Muralitharan, the most prolific wicket taker in international cricket history will be playing his last ever match at this level. After 19 years of spell binding mastery over a succession of bamboozled victims he has finally decided to call it a day. The undisputed master of off-spin bowling he has the tools to make a mess of India’s top order before coming back to finish off the tail. It is surely written in the stars that after taking a wicket with his final ball in Test Cricket and his final delivery in Sri Lanka, he will rip through the limply prodding defences of Munaf Patel to snatch the Cup from the hosts at the very last minute.
So there you have it. India are nailed on certainties to land their second World Cup in front of an adoring home crowd while Sri Lanka will inevitably make their way triumphantly back to Colombo with the title of champions for the second time. You see, sometimes everyone’s a winner.