| Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly during a dinner hosted by the International Cricket Council at Johannesburg on Friday. (PTI)
The Wanderers, aka The Bullring: Sachin Tendulkar vs Glenn Mcgrath; Sourav Ganguly versus Brett Lee; Zaheer Khan versus Adam Gilchrist... bullfights don’t get bigger than this.
A little less than 24 hours before he might well be striding out to bat at The Wanderers on Sunday, the biggest bull of ’em all, little Sachin Tendulkar, took guard on one of the three practice pitches bordering the Johannesburg stadium.
For the next 50 minutes, as coach John Wright, and then trainer Adrian Le Roux and a local member of the extended Indian contingent kept hurling the white ball with all their might, Sachin played each and every one on merit. Square cuts, square drives (a couple of uppish ones drawing an admonishing shake of the blue-helmeted head), cover drives, off-drives, on-drives, flicks and glances — no lofted shots, no lapse in concentration, nothing casual about the Little Master’s last full workout with the bat before D-Day.
In the nets next to Sachin, Harbhajan was replaced by Kumble after striking some trademark “balle balle” blows, legs splayed, head raised high, ball soaring over the fencing, sending photographers and fans scurrying for cover. On the last of the practice pitches, Sehwag goes, Parthiv comes in and then in a final flourish, Sourav steps up for a thumping cover drive.
But through all this, Sachin bats on relentlessly. “Just watch him closely and learn,” says a South African to his seven-year-old son, as lensmen from the world over crowd only that square of the fence through which they get a clear view of the man from Mumbai.
Sachin finally winds up, almost reluctantly, when the other nets are deserted and the pitch dusters show up to undo the damage done by some scorching straight drives.
Among those who have turned up to see the final off-field flourish from the Indians in white T-shirts and navy blue tracks are Rabindrasangeet singer Anushila Basu and businessman hubby Debi Prasad Basu from Bhowanipore. “India were playing so well that we couldn’t stay so far from the action and flew in just before the semi-final,” says the couple from Calcutta. “Kolkatar Subhechha” is the Tricolour banner they hold aloft, hoping to catch the eye of “amader Sourav”. Anushila’s hand is in a sling — the result of a recent fall — but that hasn’t stopped her from turning up to cheer the boys in blue, in Tricolour dupatta and Tricolour bangles.
Not wearing their patriotism round their neck or on their sleeves is a motley crowd of Indian fans, waiting for hours for a glimpse of “Sachin, Sourav, Rahul...”.
As the team moves from the practice pitches to the stadium, the multitude waits patiently. Inside, the coach and trainer put the boys through their jog-sprint-stretch-pick-up-and-throw paces. For the last time on this campaign, Team India splits into batsman and bowler for a game of volleyball.
The batsmen, yet again, spike the bowlers, but not before a longer-than-usual struggle, slowing Sourav Ganguly’s progress to his last pre-match press conference of World Cup 2003, where he appears far more edgy than he had, two triumphant nights ago, at Kingsmead. “I won’t answer any questions about New Zealand today,” he snaps at half a query about “tour terrible”.
After Sourav, it’s Ricky Ponting’s turn, after an extended stint at the nets. Ponting is his usual perky self, announcing that Sourav has not done anything yet to “wind me up” and hoping that “he doesn’t have anything up his sleeve tomorrow”.
Ponting won’t know if Sourav does have anything up his sleeve to get under his skin till exactly 9.25 am, local time, when the two captains get together with Match Referee Ranjan Madugalle and go out for the toss five minutes later. The off-the-pitch activity at The Wanderers will start as early as 5. 30 am.
Here’s a glance through the all-important Match Run Sheet that must ensure that the World Cup final goes like clockwork (all timings are local, just add three-and-a-half-hours to get the time by your watch):
5.30 am: Groundstaff arrive
5.35 am: Removal of covers from pitch
5.45 am: Mowing of outfield
8 am: Start World Satellite feed
8.15 am: Playing control team inspects pitch and outfield
8.30 am: Gates open
9.00 am: Team sheet from manager
9.15 am: Pitch report
9.30 am: Coin toss
9. 45 am: Start world programming feed (Sony and all)
9.54 am: National anthem of Australia (chosen as Anthem 1 by the toss of a coin, reveal organisers)
9.55 am: National anthem of India
10 am: First ball of the final
11. 10 am: Drinks break
12. 20 pm: Drinks break
13.30 pm: End of first innings
13.35 pm to 14.05 pm: 335 CWC volunteers do a lap of the field, followed by 80 entertainers going through their song-and-dance routine
14.10 pm: Players back on the pitch; South African Airways fly past
14.15 pm: First ball of the second innings
15.25 pm: Drinks break
16.35 pm: Drinks break; Man of the Match and Player of the Tournament voting card to be collected from Match Referee Madugalle
17.45 pm: Scheduled close of play
17.55 pm: Post-match presentation
18.00 pm: World feed programme signs off. The End.
(And for all those glued to Sony from 11 on Sunday morning, here’s a glimpse of what to look forward to:
n Mandira Bedi in a non-transparent Ritu Kumar sari to match the mood of the biggest day in Indian sports for 20 years.
n Tony Greig, Ravi Shastri, Barry Richards, Sanjay Manjrekar, Arun Lal and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan in The Wanderers commentary box
n Kapil Dev, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Ian Bishop and Mark Nicholas in the Cape Town studio