Cricket: Face-off promises thriller

By David Leggat

There can be no mistaking the leading characters in tonight's World Cup final, featuring cricket's best batsman against the most prolific bowler.

Sachin Tendulkar on his home ground, bidding for a first title in six trips to the World Cup, will take on Muttiah Muralitharan, aiming to win it again in his last game for Sri Lanka.

It's India v Sri Lanka, for cricket is a team sport. But it's a complex team sport played by individuals and, in this case, there are two who are peerless in their respective disciplines.

Tendulkar will be under enormous pressure, with India desperate to end a 28-year wait for their second World Cup title and become the first country to win it on home soil.

Tendulkar, 38 next month and showing no signs of being slowed by age, made his first-class debut at Wankhede Stadium - venue for the final - in 1998 and has been in the international arena for two decades.

He has scored more runs than any batsman - more than 18,000 in ODIs alone - and is one shy of his 100th hundred in international cricket. His nearest rival, recently deposed Australian captain Ricky Ponting, is next on the list with 69.

Tendulkar narrowly missed his century of centuries in India's 29-run semifinal win over arch-rivals Pakistan, but he was dropped four times and had an lbw decision overturned.

Such a streaky innings wouldn't have done the most elegant of batsmen justice.

Besides, it adds even more drama to the tournament final in the thriving financial and entertainment hub, home to India's Bollywood.

"Going back to Mumbai, especially for this event, is a wonderful occasion," Tendulkar said. "And all I want to say is, we want to be calm, focus on our job and get the job done."

Muralitharan, hobbling and doubtful with a host of nagging injuries, won the World Cup at the age of 23 when Sri Lanka stunned the cricket establishment by winning the premier limited-overs title with a seven-wicket victory over the Australians at Lahore in 1996.

Since then, he has taken more wickets in tests and limited-overs cricket than anyone in history. He needs only three more to equal Australian pace great Glenn McGrath's record 71 World Cup wickets.

He had his perfect Colombo send-off when he took a wicket with his final ball on home soil in Sri Lanka's semifinal win over New Zealand, when he was hoisted on to his teammates' shoulders and later did a lap of honour with the national flag.

Muralitharan has been through many tribulations, not least when he was no-balled for using what umpires considered an illegal bowling action on his first tour to Australia, so he's unlikely to let hamstring, groin and side strains stop him rolling in for his last 10 overs of off spin.

"Chances are good that Murali will play," said Sri Lanka's Australian-born coach Trevor Bayliss. "He completed 10 overs in the semifinal, and such is the character of the man that he will play even with discomfort." Sri Lanka's other injury concern is allrounder Angelo Mathews, who left the field late in the semifinal with a muscle strain.

Just in case, though, Sri Lanka are sending veteran seamer Chaminda Vaas and offspinner Suraj Randiv to Mumbai on standby.

The only other concern for Sri Lanka is a lack of time at the crease for their middle order.

The Sri Lankans have three of the top five scorers in the tournament, led by opener Tillakaratne Dilshan. Skipper Kumar Sangakkara is also in superb touch at No 3 and as wicketkeeper.

India's batting is undoubtedly their strength, but the bowling attack did well to defend 260 at Mohali, with all five bowlers taking two wickets apiece.

This is the first all-Asian final, and probably the hardest to pick because the combinations match up so well.

One thing in India's favour has been their tougher run to the final, following the must-win group match against the West Indies with a big quarter-final win over three-time defending champion Australia and then ousting Pakistan in a blockbuster semifinal. If India win they will have beaten every former World Cup champion to capture the title.

"It's important to peak at the right time," skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni said after the win over Pakistan. "Throughout the tournament we didn't have any easy games. Every game we had, we had to struggle. All in all, we're ready for the finals."

In Sri Lanka's favour is their World Cup record against India, with four wins from six completed matches.

In India, Sri Lanka are two from two, after winning both the group match and the semifinal in Mumbai in 1996, the latter finishing in sensational circumstances.

The Sri Lankans were awarded the match at Calcutta by default after the 100,000-strong crowd rioted when it became obvious India would struggle to win. Chasing 252, India were 120 for eight in the 35th over when ICC match referee Clive Lloyd took the teams off the field and then decided to abandon the match.

There's unlikely to be any repeat of that disturbance, with strict security in place and Wankhede reduced to just over 30,000 in a recently completed refurbishment.

- AP

- NZ Herald

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