April 16, 2007

The clash of opposites

ESPNcricinfo staff

Preview. Sneak peak. Dress rehearsal. Call it what you will but tonight’s Australia-Sri Lanka game is, according to those who put their mouths where their money is, one of those things for the April 28 final. What makes it even better is that nothing really rides on it (nothing, that is, that can happen to upset the possibility of these two sides meeting each other again in the final).

For a cricket fan, it will be a terrific contest not just because these have been the two best teams in the tournament so far (yes, I’d put Sri Lanka ahead of New Zealand because of its consistency and the quality of the opposition it has played from the group stage). It’s a mouth-watering prospect because the teams are exact opposites of each other. Nothing makes for a better showdown.

Australia is ruthless; it believes in taking no prisoners. It is clinical in its approach, gritty when fighting back and remorseless in its decapitation of opponents. Having been the best cricket side in the world for some years now (notwithstanding the ICC ratings prior to the World Cup), it brooks no failure. It is the champion side. It came to the Caribbean with the intention of defending the title. It believes in its invincibility.

It is an epitome of many things: how merely talent, even a lot of it, isn't enough any more, and how it needs to be harnessed with discipline; how one's gifts can't be taken for granted; how far cricket has evolved; how competitive a game it is and how mentally tough you have to be to play the sport at this level.

The metaphors I think of when I think of Australia nearly always have to do with surgery or with war.

Sri Lanka is charming, joy-filled and ebullient. It is beguiling in its approach, seeming to as much enjoy having the upper hand in a game as coming from behind. Eleven years back, it won the World Cup. And, while always having been full of promise, it has never quite come close to the form and flourish of that dizzying 1996 tournament. Now, as this World Cup wears on, it seems to realize how precious and how important this campaign is: this time around, really, it can go the distance.

It is an epitome of many things: how form comes and goes but class, true class, always endures in the end; how cricket is still at its most entertaining when played in their way – with flair and flourish and a sense of fun and goodwill – and that those seemingly old-fashioned things can be adapted to the modern template of the game.

The metaphors I think of when I think of Sri Lanka nearly always have to do with the fine arts or joyousness.

They have different means but the end, for both sides, is the same: they want to win. It's absorbing to watch how they go about that so differently.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of two volumes of cricketing memoirs - You Must Like Cricket? and All That You Can't Leave Behind - and a novel, If I Could Tell You