ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
India v Sri Lanka, final, World Cup 2011, Mumbai
Finally, the moment of truth
Everyone involved in the World Cup final cannot escape the passing thought about how everything that they have done till now - picking up a bat or a ball, their first century, their first five-for - has telescoped into these hours
Sharda Ugra in Mumbai
April 1, 2011
Tomorrow. Across India and Sri Lanka, separated by a stretch of water and a well-concealed rivalry, the word carries with it the forceful belief of possibility, shared between men and women, board room and assembly line, students and teachers, cops and crooks. The players, in their hotel rooms next to the Gateway of India, tussle against the idea of tomorrow, constantly reminding themselves to keep everything light: food, conversation, thoughts.
In a long, corkscrewing, exhausting World Cup, this suddenly becomes the best of times. Everyone involved in the World Cup final cannot escape the passing thought about how everything that they have done till now - picking up a bat or a ball, their first century, their first five-for - has telescoped into these hours. When it's done late on Saturday night, the champion will be swept away by adrenaline, the loser by regret.
Today, though, before it all begins, they will all feel like winners.
Just around noon on Friday, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara descended from staircases, on either side of the sightscreen at the pavilion end of the Wankhede Stadium, to come together for an official photograph. They will walk down the same staircases for the toss on Saturday, knotted inside, their sang-froid a mere mask. On Friday, though, they were at ease; relaxed; Sri Lankan and Indian, lean and brawny, joking during the photo shoot, together hanging on to an 11kg silver and gold trophy that only one of them will be entitled to lift tomorrow. Maybe even the trophy was relieved; there were rumours it had been detained by Mumbai customs upon arrival.
Sangakkara spoke of a state of "controlled excitement" in the Sri Lankan dressing room, but he could have been speaking for everyone. Dhoni, usually glib, and often on auto-pilot with his media-conference replies, did have his Captain Cool cape on, but even he seemed a bit respectful of where he finds himself, "20 or 14 hours before the start of the game." Like he has always done, he will stay away from the bowlers meeting on Friday night, saying it helps him formulate his own alternative plans, if the bowling begins to fray on the field the next day.
He is happy that India have had a short and sharp two-day gap between the semi-finals and the final, saying it "helps you to not think too much." In the packed media conference room where both captains' press conferences were held, Dhoni and Sangakkara accepted that the contest had a greater meaning than the cliched "normal match". No matter what the price of the final tickets or how small the stadium, Dhoni said he knew every Indian would be watching. Sangakkara said victory would bring joy to a troubled nation, remembering those "who had down their lives for our country."
Dhoni reminded a foreign reporter of the truths of Indian cricket, telling him he had been swapping channels and saw footage of celebrations outside his house after the semi-final. "Not to forget that was the very house where in 2007 a few other things also happened, but that's what happens in India, so it's better to be at your best," he said alluding to the attack on his house after India's last World Cup campaign ended in disappointment.
India's best in this World Cup has slowly gained strength in the knockout rounds in contrast to how comfortably the Sri Lankans have gone. The lack of anxiety en route to the finals has not made Sangakkara anxious though. "It is hard to say which one of them is better for us [winning comfortably or through tough games]. We are happy that we are here. We have had to win games; we didn't get any walkovers in our journey here. We are pretty confident of the fact that we have been one of the best sides of the tournament."
The rivalry between India and Sri Lanka is neither as old as England-Australia, nor as fervent as India-Pakistan. Its ferocity lies not in its history, nor in the actual contest, but among its fans and the growing animosity among its diaspora. In the past three years, the India v Sri Lanka fixture has been repeated so often that it can leave the most diligent of watchers wondering, in jest, about what on earth could make this an occasion.
It was Sangakkara who spelt it out, saying the subcontinent, and the teams that represent it, is the "best place" to play cricket. "No other place can match the buzz, the hype, the excitement around the game. When you play a tournament of this magnitude here, it kind of lifts the entire occasion, makes that occasion a lot more glorious."
ICC chief Haroon Lorgat, in his enthusiasm, may have over-anticipated the moment of possibility, when before India's quarter-final on March 24, he asked a dumbstruck press corps, "How about this scenario of Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 100th century at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in the final?" The Sri Lankans will not be amused, but they may be happy to be seen as invisible. When Mahela Jayawardene ran into an acquaintance at the ICC awards six months ago, he was told that his team were one of the strongest contenders for the trophy. He held up his hands and laughed, "Keep it quiet, keep it quiet."
It can be kept quiet no longer. In reply to a question in Sinhala, Sangakkara reminded his countryman that since 1992, the World Cup final had always featured one Asian team. Now there are two, and the comfort in home conditions has played a big role in them getting there. At the same time, India and Sri Lanka deserve credit for their admirable endurance of the public expectation they move around with; something other teams didn't have to face.
South Asia's World Cup has been everything for everyone. It has dimmed the horrors and failures of 2007, reinvigorated the 50-over game, and kept a six-week marathon around three countries and 13 venues alive. The cricket has been entertaining, the sub-continent has struck one back for the bowlers so much so that an event mournfully advertised as the "batsman's" World Cup with "par scores above 300" has actually been a gritty contest between bat and ball. Only three times have there been 300-plus first innings scores in games featuring two Test playing nations in this tournament. The Cup's top ten wicket-takers are equally split between the spinners and the fast bowlers. Still there have so far been 254 sixes and 1850 fours in the tournament.
On Friday evening, the sun went into the sea on the west, and Mumbai's famous local commuter trains clattered away every few minutes to the east of the Wankhede, carrying thousands home to a night of dreaming. Out in the centre, a machine called the Toro Greensmaster rumbled, trimming the outfield to make it faster, and a man carrying a vat full of chemicals hosed over it to prevent the onset of dew.
Advertising hoardings were being painted and swept by a broom. In this new-look, newfangled ground, men were still needed to clamber over a 25-foot high bamboo framework that made up the temporary sightscreen for net practice. Of all Indian grounds at the World Cup, it was only in Mumbai that the players could train on either side of the centre wicket.
While waiting for their to turn to bat or bowl, both India and Sri Lanka's players would have looked over at the strip - bare, brown, like a piece of land close to cracking with drought - and thought about their tomorrows. The batsmen on both sides went skyward during practice, trying to marry elevation with distance. They hit the boundary boards, scattered balls into the stands like stones, and looped them over the sightscreens. The bowlers tossed the ball up, lips curling into disdain when the batsman was entrapped into hurrying, miscuing or mistiming the ball into areas that are expected to be manned. If Toro Greensmaster has his way, fielding is not going to be the happiest part of the warm-ups on Saturday.
The World Cup doesn't do those lovely photographs any more, of all the participating teams lined up behind their captains and looking at a photographer high in the sky, be it at Lord's or Eden Gardens, in front of Sydney Opera House or on a South African ice-breaking naval ship. It is the only time the cricket world can actually stand together, but it doesn't happen anymore. Tomorrow, symbolically, again they will have a chance.
So, when the two umpires shake hands with each other and walk out, they will represent the rest of the cricketing world who have returned home, all defeated, some disappointed, some optimistic. It will be Australian Simon Taufel's first chance to stand in a World Cup final. His partner Pakistani Aleem Dar will look up to the sky and make a familiar gesture: touch his heart and then the ground. He does this in memory of the daughter he lost when officiating in the 2003 World Cup, a reminder that man comes from and returns to the earth. It is both a remembrance and a reminder that in the manic few hours before a World Cup final, it will help everyone in cricket - those on the field and those watching outside - to always stay grounded.
At 9pm, the trains rattled and the floodlights at the Wankhede shut down, one tower at a time. They won't come on until sunset on Saturday.
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