A World Cup final exam
Final Day. Mumbai is excited. India is excited. Sri Lanka is excited. Cricket is excited. My breakfast dosa was excited. “Who’s going to win, Andy? Don’t eat me yet, don’t let me die before you tell me who’s going to win. Go India.”
I imagine you, the readers, are excited. About the final, more so than reading this blog. There is only one thing to do in such excitable circumstances: calm yourselves down by sitting an exam.
Please sit in silence and answer the following questions, without conferring.
Who will win today’s final?
(a) India. They have two of the greatest, most destructive players in history opening the batting, and their top 7 can all score fast and significant runs. They have bowled with craft and discipline in their two knockout games, and fielded with an enthusiasm and athleticism that suggests that they were using stunt body doubles during the group stage. Quite sleepy stunt body doubles with the early signs of rheumatoid arthritis. They have coped comfortably with the pressure of both the quarter- and semi-finals, are peaking like a perfect meringue, and have a captain who seemingly would still exude calm if an asteroid was plummeting directly towards him with an estimated impact in T minus 30 seconds.
(b) Sri Lanka. Their spin attack is more potent than India’s, their top 3 is in scorebook-singeing form, they have waltzed into the final with two resounding clumpings, interrupted only by a minor micro-choke against New Zealand, and they will not take the field with 1.2 billion people tapping them on their shoulders and muttering “You’d better win this”.
(c) Cricket. At this stage, it simply does not matter. It is the game that counts. It is all about the taking part. As it was on Wednesday in Mohali.
(d) No-one. It will be a tie. The game will end with the two icons of their respective nation’s sport being chaired off the Wankhede pitch. By each other’s teams.
(e) The crowd. My prediction is that 83% of the Mumbai audience today will submit correct answers to the in-match trivia questions barked at them via the PA system and electronic scoreboard. If they have correctly responded that Graeme Fowler top-scored for England in their 1983 semi-final defeat to India at Old Trafford, they will all go home happy regardless of the result.
Who will lose today’s final?
(a) India. Their much-trumpeted batting line-up, after opening the tournament like a high-quality Miles Davis tribute act in Dhaka, has tooted only sporadically since melting like an igloo on a Mediterranean beach holiday against South Africa. The bowling, whilst much improved, has still lacked penetration in the early overs, which could prove costly against the Sri Lankan top 4, and home advantage could become home disadvantage if things start to go badly and overwhelming nerves grip the 33,000 inside the stadium and billion-and-a-bit outside it.
(b) Sri Lanka. Their middle-order is out of practice, out of form, and out of their league when their career records are compared against the opponents’. India have the best record in the tournament against spin, and have usually dominated the one-man slingshot strikeforce Lasith Malinga (average 45, economy rate 5.7, against India). The champion and totem Muralitharan has taken only 55 of his 1347 international wickets in India, at an average of over 40, including just 16 at 44.5 in his last 16 ODIs here since 2008. Their passage through the group stage, quarters and semi may have been too easy. They have seldom been tested, failed in their one sizeable chase, against Pakistan, and looked distinctly shaky under brief pressure against New Zealand on Tuesday.
(c) England. Strauss’ team have defied the critics in this tournament by repeatedly rescuing themselves from seemingly hopeless positions, but this may be one hurdle too high even for them.
(d) Mumbai mayor Shraddha Jadhav, who, it was reported in yesterday’s press, was whingeing about being given insufficiently swanky seats for the final. It has never been entirely clear to me why public officials need to attend sporting events at all, let alone in the best seats available. Will she be unable to discharge her mayoral duties if she is able only to watch the game on a humble television set, like the people who elected her, many of whom would happily wrestle a champion sabre-toothed tiger for the chance of getting a ticket to watch the game whilst dangling upside down from the stadium roof being nested on by bats? Will she go into her mayoral office on Monday, put on her mayor’s crown and cape, tap her fingers on the mayoric desk, and weep quietly to herself: “I can’t concentrate, I didn’t get enough fresh air on Saturday and my eyes hurt from squinting at my telly”?
Will there be sufficient time during today’s TV coverage for all of the celebrity guests watching the match to be shown individually, or will some tragically miss out or, worse still, have to share the screen with another celebrity?
Please submit your answers to yourselves by 2.29pm IST today, before the 43-day IPL Curtain Raiser Cup reaches its climax. Incidentally, my answers are (a) India will win, with Sehwag playing a critical innings; (b) Sri Lanka will lose, after their middle order struggles; and (c) I don’t even want to think about it, I just hope they all have a lovely day out.
● At yesterday’s pre-match press conference, both Dhoni and Sangakkara were as calm and even-tempered as you expect of them. It was hardly likely that either skipper would respond to a question about how he and his team were handling the pressure of the match itself and the attendant expectations by saying: “We’re not. We can’t sleep, we can’t eat, we spend all day hiding behind the sofa praying for it all to be over. Frankly, I’d rather be on a beetle-spotting holiday in Uzbekistan than here right now. My hair’s falling out and I want my mummy.”
Nevertheless, I could only admire their level-headed composure 24 hours before a World Cup final, with their entire nations about to go either stark raving bonkers with delirium or stark raving inconsolably miserable. If I had to give a pre-match press conference before playing my wife at tennis on the public court on Streatham Common, I would be tense, irritable and curt due to the stress of the impending contest.
● Boxing fans might have found it odd that, before a heavyweight contest such as this, the two captains were allowed to talk to the press separately. Why not line them up next to each other, feed them deliberately provocative questions, and wait for the trash-talking, eyeballing and grandstanding braggadocio to kick off?
I am not suggesting that Dhoni and Sangakkara should have stripped down to their underpants, squared up to each other, taunted each other about how hard they were going to punch each other in the face, and launched into an obviously pre-planned insult-fuelled fist-throwing scuffle. Far from it. Boxing is a pugilistic sport, with appropriately pugilistic build-up. But it would have increased the hype still further had the two cricket skippers taunted each other about how Rangana Herath was going to ping Yuvraj Singh on the helmet with a 90mph bouncer, or how Munaf Patel was all set to clonk Malinga’s inswinging yorkers over the sightscreen for 6, before it inevitably spilt over and, rather than physically fighting, they started bowling at each other. Modern sport is 95% about hype, and this was a hyportunity missed.
● MS Dhoni suggested that the injured Murali would play on one leg if necessary. I consider this an understatement. Murali would play this match even if both legs and both arms had dropped off overnight, and his head had turned into an orange. He might even still be a danger for India in these circumstances. There is no substitute for experience, after all. (Ian Botham took 5 Australian wickets at Melbourne to help England win the 1986-87 Ashes in a vaguely similar condition.)
● I have calmed down a little about the stadium experience in Mohali. I still think that the remorseless ear-breaking audioslurry that spilt out of the stadium PA undermined any sense of atmosphere and occasion, and prevented the crowd generating its own genuine reactions and spontaneous noise. But there is a final to look forward to now, so I’ll leave it for a while.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer