| India skipper Sourav Ganguly discusses a grip with coach John Wright as Zaheer Khan (extreme left) and Jawagal Srinath join in at the Wanderers in Johannesburg Saturday. (AFP)
We have got the World Cup final we wanted. We have the best teams on form — Australia with the reputation as the best in the world, and one of the best ever, while India is the emerging powerhouse.
The battle at the Wanderers on Sunday could be decided on the outcome of the duel between Brett Lee and Sachin Tendulkar. Lee will be the key for Australia as much as Tendulkar for India. The winner of this game within a game may well decide the outcome of this World Cup final.
This final will also be the litmus test for captain Sourav Ganguly and his new-look team. For the past six weeks they have made steady progress as they have built their confidence upon the foundation of winning cricket matches once again.
The blend of youthful exuberance with experience gives the Indian team a look of solidity that has not been evident too often in recent times. On form it may well be the best team in the competition at this moment.
The strength of the Indian team will always be built around Tendulkar as he is one of the most damaging players ever to have played the game. What is different about this team is that Sourav, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif have all shown some form in the tournament.
Despite this depth, I believe Tendulkar will need to play one of his imposing innings to neutralise Lee. As the pre-eminent player of fast bowling in the world today, Tendulkar has the ability to tame Lee and make the job of others that much easier.
Unless conditions are slewed so far in favour of bowling, I don’t believe any of the other Australian bowlers pose the same threat to India that Lee does. No doubt they will bowl well, they always do, but, none of them has the explosive pace that can sort the men from the boys quite as definitely as Lee can.
Good players can handle pace — they find it much more difficult when it is allied to good line and length. Lee is the premier exponent of this destructive triumvirate in the world of cricket at this moment in time.
If Tendulkar can negate Lee, India has the batting talent to make an imposing total. Australia has, seemingly, covered the loss of Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne, but this final may be the proving ground for how well they have really done so.
Andy Bichel and Brad Hogg are honest performers, but they do not have the big match experience that Gillespie and Warne possess. Hogg will have the glare of the spotlight more acutely upon him in this game and how well he responds could be a defining moment in the final.
Indian batsmen play spin as well as anyone, if not better. They use their feet well and are not afraid to loft the ball. Hogg puts a lot of top-spin on the ball so he does not spin the ball as much as Warne does.
The balance of the Australian attack will depend on whether Damien Martyn is considered fit. If he is, Harvey may miss out. Darren Lehmann, Andrew Symonds and Martyn will share the final ten overs if Lee, McGrath, Bichel and Hogg bowl their full quota. This is an area of vulnerability. If India can survive the Lee onslaught, Bichel, Hogg and the part-timeers are the ones for India to target.
Australia will want a greater return from their top three batsmen than they have had so far in the tournament. Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting will be disappointed with their return thus far so will be looking to play a decisive hand in the final.
India’s pace attack is second only to the Australian’s in this tournament and may even have the edge on them. Jawagal Srinath is a proven performer. How his less experienced partners handle the pressure of the big occasion could well decide the contest.
Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra have both grown considerably as this event has unfolded, but, knowing the Australians, they will be targeted by Gilchrist and Hayden in particular. If they can hold their nerve, Nehra and Zaheer can do much for the Indian cause.
Australia has relied on their middle and lower order to get them out of trouble a number of times lately, but will not want to rely too heavily on them here if they can avoid it.
Bevan has done well on occasions, as he is prone to, while Symonds has come of age in this tournament. Bichel has also been a bonus with his batting and fielding since coming in as a replacement for the injured Gillespie.
Australia would like to have Martyn, if fit, to bolster the shaky top order while Lehmann is as solid as anyone going around. Lehmann, Bevan and Symonds have been the engine room of the Australian batting effort so far. (PTI)