No losers in a match that's bigger than the game
That the favourites and the glamour boys have all vacated the stage has provided the World Twenty20 the most poignant finale possible. By their presence in the final, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have offered cricket the opportunity to be bigger than itself: from being a mere spectacle, there is now the prospect of cricket serving a greater purpose.
That the two best, most varied, and most individualistic bowling sides have made it to the final of the premier tournament in Twenty20, a format that gives batsmen obscene liberty, is itself a cause for celebration. But if you allow yourself to see the broader picture, the matters of bat and ball become insignificant before the human possibilities the final offers. Among all those participating in this tournament, no two nations need the lift sporting success can bring more than Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Sri Lanka has just emerged from the bloodiest of civil wars that has claimed thousands of lives and left many more painful memories. The victory over the Tamil Tigers has been costly and, while there is a measure of self-congratulation, the fractures in society remain.
In Pakistan, the war might have just begun. The state of cricket in Pakistan is a fairly accurate illustration of its position in the real world. Younis Khan, a man of many admirable qualities, pointed out - perhaps unwittingly but poignantly - that the strife of the cricket team merely mirrors the state of the nation. More than the chaos, though, the country, like its cricket, is in danger of being pushed to the margins - and, worse, a point of no return.
What can a mere sporting win do? A lot. There is no overstating the healing power of sport. Sports fans live their dreams through the lives of their sporting heroes and win radiates joy. And it's a joy that spreads easily and it helps forge bonds and ease pain, however momentarily. Most sportsmen are aware of this power and that this makes them worthy.
It is unlikely that when they go out in their country's colours tomorrow the Sri Lankans and the Pakistanis will be oblivious to the wider significance of the match. Rather than weighing them down, such knowledge should be empowering. It can invest their game with a little more meaning and passion. Twenty20 is not a game of grand ideas and epic performances. It's a game of moments; inspiration matters.
Sri Lanka are among the most-loved teams in world cricket. What's not to love? They play an interesting, engaging and endearing brand of cricket. Their style is a triumph of natural flair and individual spirit over the rigours of process. They carry no bloated egos and most of them play with a smile. Their desire to win hasn't overpowered their necessity to lead a normal life and they haven't allowed success to spoil their manners.
I asked Mahela Jayawerdene last year, when he was still the captain, if it was a challenge for him and senior players to manage the sudden stardom of Ajantha Mendis, who had just landed an IPL contract. Jayawardene answered with breathtaking simplicity and clarity. The culture played a big part, he said; at the end of the day there are certain values that everyone had to fall in line with. Whoever didn't fit into those sets of rules and goals wouldn't be part of the team, irrespective of how good they were.
Even if you were neutral, Sri Lanka are a team whose success makes you feel good.
And Pakistan - has there ever been a more confounding and enthralling team? Always in tumult, always in strife, always on the edge, and often in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, yet always potential winners.
No one, least of all the players themselves, has ever known what they will, or can, do next. Bereft of match practice, plagued by controversies, and running low on resources, what business did they have to reach the final? However, though it seems ages ago, weren't they in the final of this very tournament a couple of years ago?
The last time they won a world tournament was in 1992. Then too they began their campaign in disarray and lived from match to match. That team had more quality and a leader who could rouse them. This time they made it to semi-finals almost stealthily and then knocked out the favourites with a bravura performance.
The mere thought that they could win the tournament would have been staggering a couple of weeks ago, but now, standing on the edge of possibility, they can do anything.
Going by how they have played so far, Sri Lanka deserve to win, but Pakistan need it more. It's a cliché, but there will no losers tomorrow.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo