India aim to be the bride
Sourav Ganguly took heart from the fact that India hadn't played to their strengths, and yet managed to reach the Asia Cup final, as he looked ahead to tomorrow's decisive encounter against Sri Lanka. "This tournament hasn't seen the best of us," he admitted, adding that he preferred to play to India's strengths rather than focus on any perceived Sri Lankan frailty.
India's only reverse in an Asia Cup final came against Sri Lanka seven years ago, on this very ground, and that's a piece of history that Ganguly and his men won't want to recreate on Sunday. As it is, doubts linger about this talented team's ability to deliver when it matters, with 13 defeats and only a solitary victory (NatWest Trophy, 2002) in the last 18 finals that they have contested. "It's a new game tomorrow," said Ganguly. "Sri Lanka are hard to beat at home, but we won the last game, and we've also won here before. The conditions are pretty similar to what we're used to."
To be fair, the four most recent losses in grand finals have come against an Australian team that continues to set new standards in the one-day game. But with one-day cricket being a batsman's game, and India possessing such an awesome line-up, it has to be asked why potential hasn't always translated itself into performance.
Things haven't really fallen into place here either. Ganguly put it down to early-season rust. "Sehwag, myself and Yuvraj all made big contributions the other day," he said. "It will happen that not all the batsmen score runs in a given match. It's up to the two or three that get in to go on and make big runs."
And though most teams have treated this as a curtain-raiser for their season, there's plenty at stake in this final. After being outmanoeuvred and outplayed by Arjuna Ranatunga's brilliant side in the latter half of the `90s, India have recently reasserted themselves in this rivalry, winning seven of the last 12 games. Most of those victories have been engineered by the batsmen, who have made light of the experience and ability of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas to post some mammoth totals.
With the toss sure to be vital - teams batting first have won 25 times in 39 games played under lights at the Premadasa - it could once again be a direct tussle between India's batsmen and Sri Lanka's bowlers. Though Sri Lanka have some talented batsmen of their own, there is a perception, somewhat justified by recent performances, that they rely too much on Sanath Jayasuriya's explosive ability at the top of the order.
Ganguly hinted that the team would be prepared for Jayasuriya's assault. "He scores runs against us, but if we get him out, their run-rate is usually not as good," he said. "In the last game, he survived a close lbw appeal against Zaheer, and I also made the mistake of taking the slips out early."
But while the Indians respected Jayasuriya's ability as a game-breaker, Ganguly wasn't unduly concerned about the toss. "It's a good track," he said. "Pitches for finals are generally prepared with more attention." He also suggested that India's team composition would depend on the state of the pitch.
The vexing question is whether to go in with three pace bowlers and one spinner, or to retain both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. The two-spinner ploy will most likely be employed, since Lakshmipathy Balaji has been in wretched form with the ball in the tournament. Ashish Nehra hasn't, but his cause isn't helped by being the third-choice left-arm seamer in a team unlikely to ever play all three.
If the surface was likely to aid the seamers, Ganguly said that he would even consider playing all three left-arm pace bowlers. "That's been on our minds," he admitted, before adding, "but if the pitch is as dry as the last game, probably not."
And while India have only Kumble to match Murali and Vaas in the experience stakes, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan have been around long enough to be considered seasoned campaigners. And that's not to forget Irfan Pathan, who bowls with a composure and skill that suggests he has been around for years, rather than mere months.
Unless they have a really bad day, or Jayasuriya has a particularly good one - and there have been a fair few of those against India - it's unlikely that Sri Lanka will run riot with the bat, especially on a sluggish pitch that doesn't suit strokemakers like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
And while no Indian batsman has hit the high notes in this tournament, they will be heartened by the fact that they have managed to put runs on the board, except against Pakistan, without being at anything like their best. Ganguly has shown the way with a couple of innings that were gritty rather than typically fluid, while Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj have also chipped in with sizeable knocks. For the final, they will be further bolstered by the inclusion of VVS Laxman, hundred-maker for fun against Australia, but less prolific against sides comprising mere mortals.
India didn't blink when faced with disaster, in the form of a rampaging Jayasuriya, in the previous game against Sri Lanka. Similar fortitude will be required on Sunday, as they take on a confident home side in front of a noisy capacity crowd. You sense that it might just come to a boil for India in the humidity and heat of Colombo. After all, just how many times can a team play bridesmaid without wanting to wear the trousseau itself?