India look to break finals jinx
India have aspired to be the best one-day team in the world for some time, but once they reached the top they lasted barely 24 hours before suffering a bout of vertigo. As the old cliché goes, it's often harder to stay somewhere than it is getting there.
This Indian team, for all its potential, remains weighed down by the history of a trend that has bordered on the unacceptable. MS Dhoni doesn't read much into the past, but India's inability to win when it really matters is infamous. South Africa have nothing on a side that has lost 14 finals matches since 2000.
Going into this final, a proper test before of the Champions Trophy, what India don't have is a batting order with any sort of form. Much will depend on what kind of platform Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, at No. 3, can provide. Sri Lanka just don't give up at home and if India are to win, the batting will have to be superior. India's biggest concern has been chasing in finals. In 20 tournament finals they have played since 2000, India have had to chase 14 times. Nine of those chases were in excess of 270.
Taking a start is crucial in any game but when it's a final, it becomes extremely important. Since 2000, India's opening partnerships in finals are not very impressive, averaging 36.94. There have been two centuries; Sourav Ganguly's 117 against New Zealand in the ICC Knockout in 2000, and Tendulkar's unbeaten 117 versus Australia in the first final of the CB Series last year. Tendulkar followed that up with 91 in the next game that took India to CB Series glory, but since 2000 only two other Indian batsmen have reached 90 in a tournament final.
India are depleted by Virender Sehwag's absence, and the records of two of three main batsmen, when it comes to tournament finals, are nothing to boast of. Tendulkar has always been a class apart and his average in finals is marginally lower than his career average - 43.45 as compared to 44.33, with a century and three fifties since 2000. Dravid and Yuvraj Singh have fantastic one-day records, but when you isolate their performance in tournament finals, their numbers resemble those of below-average players.
Dravid - with 10646 one-day runs to his credit - averages 29.00 in tournament finals against a career average of 39.42. A proven real match-winner since in limited-overs cricket, Yuvraj's batting average in finals dips to 20.31. Considering he's featured in the most finals for India this decade, Yuvraj's numbers are thoroughly disappointing. Dravid has managed a decent start in seven of 12 finals but hasn't ever pressed out a match-winning contribution. Yuvraj, after that heroic 69 against England at Lord's in 2002, has scored one half-century.
India can rightly claim to be one of the best one-day teams in the world and this could be the single most important aspect in their favour heading in to the final. In the dress rehearsal for this match they suffered their biggest defeat, in terms of runs, on Sri Lankan soil. Dhoni and Gary Kirsten will no doubt have taken a close look at footage from that game. If the Indians bat as they did against Angelo Mathews' gentle seam they may as well not bother turning up. Catches were missed and the ground fielding was erratic. In a crunch game, these factors are critical. Sri Lanka also have the edge in the field and by virtue of a fortress known as the Premadasa, not to mention the experience that two legends bring to a finals situation.
In 19 finals this decade, Muttiah Muralitharan has taken 27 wickets; Sanath Jayasuriya has scored 1032 runs. Among India's current batting line-up, only Tendulkar, Yuvraj and Dravid have played more than two finals against Sri Lanka.
After Saturday's defeat, Dhoni admitted that the result has robbed them of some momentum going into the final. "The only positive we can take from today is that it's behind us and the only thing that went right was the warm-up session. We then lost the toss and everything else went haywire. It was one of the worst days at work
As Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara size up each other's team, history suggests Sri Lanka are a safe bet. They have yet to lose a final at home this decade. Sri Lanka have not lost in seven previous finals between the two teams. Five were in Colombo: Sri Lanka won three, with the ICC Champions Trophy final and its replay being washed out. It's clear where the advantage rests.
Between 2001-03 and 2007-09, when India had justifiable claims to be the second best ODI team in the world, the silverware continued to elude them, with the exception of the CB Series in 2008 and the Natwest Series in 2002. Ahead of the Champions Trophy this month and in terms of planning for 2011, tomorrow's final is the first step towards salvation.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo