TORONTO - For the first time in 12 years that famous bush ballad Waltzing Matilda will not resonate around the cricketing world on Saturday. It will seem odd that the rampaging Aussies, who have practically owned the World Cup, won’t be striding out at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. They will be thousands of miles away Down Under.
Instead it will be co-hosts India and Sri Lanka locking horns in the first all-Asian final. Both fully deserve to be here as they were by far the best of the 14 countries.
This six-week extravaganza produced its share of thrills and spills along the way. The champions were knocked out; the highly-favoured South Africans choked again and Ashes winners England was simply not good enough.
Home-field advantage had little bearing on the finalists. India and Sri Lanka relied more on their consummate talent, team unity, drive and commitment to make it to the dance floor. Sri Lanka outclassed all of its opponents with one exception and India, too, was ruthless when it needed to be.
Take that high-voltage semifinal against bitter rival Pakistan that bristled with intensity and, of course, nationalism. India’s experienced players kept their nerves while Pakistan’s younger players succumbed to the pressure.
On display today will be the crème de la crème of the players in this tournament: Two of the top five wicket-takers (Zaheer Khan and Muttiah Muralitharan); five of the top six run-getters (Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Upul Tharanga and Virender Sehwag); wicketkeeper (Sangakkara) with the most dismissals (13) and fielder with the most catches — Mahela Jayawardene (eight).
A lowdown on the final:
Venue: The 33,000-seat Wankhede Stadium has recently been refurbished and one of the stands is named Sachin. The extremely hot and humid conditions mean the recently re-laid wicket will be dry. The curator, Sudhir Naik, is quoted as saying a score of 260-270 will be excellent for the team batting first.
Captains: India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara have been the most astute of the skippers here. They have quietly gone about their business with top-notch field placing and rotation of bowlers. Both possess that uncanny instinct to go for the kill when the opportunity presents itself.
Players to watch: Who else but Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan? Muralitharan is playing his final match and will want to exit with his second World Cup. Tendulkar is in his sixth and last World Cup. Will he achieve his dream of winning his first World Cup medal? And what about a 100th century, the first by any batsman?
Injuries: Paceman Ashish Nehra fractured a finger in the semifinal versus Pakistan and he is out. Sri Lanka suffered a huge blow with the loss of key all-rounder Angelo Matthews as a result of a pulled muscle. Muralitharan is also hobbling and in pain but if he plays on one leg or both he remains a huge threat. Sri Lanka has called up off-spinner Suraj Randiv and seamer Chaminda Vaas as insurance.
Team strategy and matchups: Nehra’s injury has put Dhoni in a quandary. Should he recall his wild paceman Sree Sreesanth and go with a three-man attack along with Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel in case the wicket takes reverse swing? Or will it be off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin? Dhoni is bound to have a sleepless night over his bowling combination as spin could be a crucial factor. Zaheer has been brilliant with the new and old ball and Yuvraj Singh has struck with his slow deliveries.
If it takes spin, Sri Lanka will have the upper-hand as it can unleash its excellent three-pronged attack of Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath.
Add the speedy Lasith Malinga with his 142 k.p.h. deliveries to the mix and the islanders could choke India.
In the batting department Sri Lanka also holds the edge. Openers Dilshan and Tharanga have already combined in two double century partnerships. Then there are Sangakkara and Jayawardene in a lineup that has a long tail.
India, of course, will rely on Tendulkar and the explosive bat of Virender Sehwag. A solid start would do wonders. Dhoni has yet to deliver with the bat, but Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh have shown the maturity and tenacity to keep that scoreboard clicking.
Will it be India or Sri Lanka? Tendulkar or Muralitharan?
The world awaits.