The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Boys, bring home the Cup

Johannesburg, March 22: Sourav Ganguly dumped soccer for cricket; Sachin Tendulkar stopped tennis. Yet, a shade under two decades ago neither could have imagined coming to within one match of repeating 1983.

Of course, the moment has been reached with loads of emotion and pressure, heroic and passionate performances, outstanding captaincy…. The list is as long as the Indian fans’ queue at The Wanderers for tickets that don’t exist.

It’s been a terrific summer, with the journey from Paarl to Johannesburg more than eventful. Bouquets to brickbats, which hit Rahul Dravid’s car and Mohammed Kaif’s house, Team India has experienced it all. What remains is actually lifting the £40,000-valued gold and silver crafted World Cup.

“We’ve given this campaign our best shot. However, at the end of the day, we’ve got to beat Australia,” Sourav, who has been adding feathers to his captaincy-cap, told The Telegraph. Lest he forgets, owing to the many pulls and pressures — emotional and otherwise — he quickly added: “I’m thankful to God for helping us get to where we have….”

Holders Australia began favourites and have justified their billing. India, after being left out in the cold by New Zealand on the December-January tour, found their stock plummeting pretty early in the tournament. It even reached a stage where Sachin had to take an extraordinary vow (on behalf of the team) in Harare: That a fight to the very last would be undertaken.

The turnaround began in Harare itself, with take-off point reached against Pakistan. So convincing was the victory (six wickets) that the pundits began looking to India as the team to watch. Today, Sourav and Co. are hours from the biggest event of their career.

This “inexperience”, so to say, is something Ricky Ponting wants to cash in on. “Six of us have played a World Cup final and, so, we do know how to win…,” he declared this afternoon, seeking to score a psychological point ahead of what should be the finest game of World Cup 2003.

But such experience alone won’t see Australia through. Just as Sourav isn’t banking on the number 17 to pull it off. Australia, it may be recalled, tripped in the 17th Test (Eden Gardens) after winning 16 in succession. Similarly, their record-smashing ODI run stands at 16. Tomorrow is match No. 17. Sourav is superstitious about numbers but, for now, his obsession is with 24.

Given that India have grown stronger, whereas Australia have repeatedly suffered early-order blues, it’s tempting to look at Sourav as the captain who will collect the sport’s most cherished trophy. For that to happen, though, the agenda must be quickly set — be it batting or bowling.

It’s to be seen who takes the initiative — Sachin, set to walk away with the Man of the Tournament trophy, or the impressive Zaheer Khan. Going by form, Sachin will have to contend with Brett Lee, while Zaheer must target Adam Gilchrist.

Nerves will surely come into play. It’s an individual thing, yes, but its fallout affects the team. Clearly, the side that stays focused will have an advantage. That could even be the difference between receiving $2 million and $800,000.

Incidentally, today seemed set aside for gestures: Sourav received a good-luck bat (from Union sports minister Vikram Verma) autographed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee; Ponting promised to dedicate an unprecedented third Australian victory, if it comes about, to teammates who couldn’t make it or had to return home for a variety of reasons.

To speak of the playing XIs, India will keep faith in the side unchanged since the Super Six. As for Australia, the think-tank appears desperate to bring back Damien Martyn, despite a fractured right index finger. If he passes the customary fitness test, then Ian Harvey will sit out.

There has been some talk of changing the Indian batting order, thereby allowing Rahul Dravid to take guard at No. 3 (should an opener depart early), but nothing has been finalised. In any case, with Sourav in form, why should a wrong signal be sent'

Superb personal achievements, an enviable run collectively, resignations, sackings…. The longest World Cup has already seen just about everything. Yet, here’s hoping it’s the final that is remembered most.

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