The classic cop-out reply to the question “who do you think will win World Cup 2007'” is, “My heart says Sri Lanka, but my head says Australia!”
This is an easier answer to give if one is from the subcontinent. There is always an affinity with your neighbours compared with some far-off place down under. Yes, the heart says Sri Lanka, and there’s no doubt that if the Sri Lankans play with all their heart they can stop the Australian juggernaut.
They will be nervous, no doubt about that. It’s all right to be so. They are, after all, playing the defending champions who are looking to do a hat-trick of wins.
India was in a similar situation in 1983. That time, it was playing the West Indies, which, too, had won the previous two World Cups, in 1975 and 1979.
Against all odds, India had got to the final, beating teams it had barely stretched in previous encounters. So the players knew they had got to the final not necessarily because they had played good cricket but because they had played better cricket than their earlier-round opponents.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has reached the final because it has played some great cricket and on the leadership scales, Mahela Jayawardene has been far superior to the other skippers.
The ploy of not exposing Chaminda Vaas and the wiles of Muttiah Muralidharan came in for flak from just about every quarter. That’s because Jayawardene was upfront about the need to keep these senior players fresh for the bigger games later on.
New Zealand did the same, with Shane Bond and Jacob Oram — its two new-ball bowlers — not playing against Australia, but gave the reason of injury which Jayawardene, too, could have done but chose not to.
That shows his confidence in his tactics and a belief that whatever the rest of the world may say, it’s the team’s interests that are paramount.
His batting, too, in the semi-finals showed that he was aware that if the Lankans had wickets in hand, they could swing their bats around and make up for the slow scoring rate in these overs.
That’s exactly what happened. The skipper knew that the Lankan batting has not been consistent and if senior pro Sanath Jayasuriya does not score, either his vice-captain, Kumar Sangakkara, or he himself has to stay and ensure that the team has a healthy score to defend.
He also displayed enough faith in Upul Tharanga, who repaid that with a run-a-ball knock in the semi-finals that kept Sri Lanka going and actually allowed Jayawardene to settle in at the crease. Tharanga had had an ordinary World Cup till the semi-finals, but has a good record in one-day cricket.
Much will depend on the start Jayasuriya gives the Sri Lankans. He has not always delivered in pressure games and this is his big chance to go out on a high. Kumar Sangakkara, too, has not been as prolific as he normally is, but he is the one man in the Sri Lankan team who can match the Aussies in the verbals.
Sri Lanka’s strength has been the emergence of Chamara Silva, a classy middle-order batsman, and Tillekeratne Dilshan, who has been showing tremendous thinking in the few overs he gets to bat. Dilshan is also as competitive as they come, unafraid of anything the opposition has to deliver.
In 1996, when they won the title beating Australia in the final, it was the depth in the Sri Lankan batting that clinched it for them. They had someone of the class of Roshan Mahanama batting at number seven, which meant that if the top order failed to take off, there was still some batting left.
If, as expected, Sri Lanka brings in Farveez Maharoof, it will not only strengthen the lower order but also the fielding, and he is more likely to bowl in the “channel” than Dilhara Fernando does.
Vaas also has turned out to be a dangerous lower-order hitter and the only batting bunnies are Lasith Malinga and Muralidharan.
Both Malinga and Muralidharan are Lanka’s trump cards. They have not been collared so far in the tournament, with none of the batsmen able to pick them.
Malinga’s slinging action, which hides the ball from the batsman’s view till the actual delivery, makes it hard to play shots off him, and he uses that advantage by firing yorkers that disturb the furniture behind the batsman.
Muralidharan, along with Shane Warne, brought a whole new dimension to the game with spin bowling that was nothing short of magic.
Sri Lanka will depend on the two Js (Jayasuriya and Jayawardene) for putting up a big score and the two Ms (Muralidharan and Malinga) to curtail the opposition score.
How well the others rally around these four key players will decide how the final goes, and if it goes down to the final over of the match, then quite frankly it does not matter who wins the 2007 World Cup.
Aus v SL head to head since World cup 1996
Played: 31 ,Aus: 20, Sl : 11
Forget for a moment...
The bloated fixture
Bob Woolmer’s death
Australia’s one-sided wins
The empty stands so far
... And remember
A World Cup final comes once in four years
This is the last time you will see Glenn McGrath in action, and perhaps Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralidharan will retire from one-day cricket