April 1, 2011

The two titans

Tendulkar and Murali have followed parallel careers to become their countries' greatest players. On Saturday, in their twilight, they face off in the biggest stage of all

Walking in to the freshly rebuilt Wankhede Stadium the day before the World Cup final, the most arresting visuals are the huge hoardings featuring Indian cricketers in body paint and primal scream. There's MS Dhoni looking slightly out of character; there are Harbhajan Singh and Virat Kohli in an extension of their on-field persona; and there is Virender Sehwag looking brooding and intense.

One cricketer is significant by his absence. Sachin Tendulkar doesn't endorse this cola brand anymore.

But just as well. For all of India, the World Cup has built itself up for the perfect finale, the dream finish: The Indian team winning it as the perfect gift for its greatest ever cricketer. It would complete the Sachin Tendulkar story. Throw in the hundredth hundred and the whole nation could die in peace. But Tendulkar isn't the only legend due a fairytale. There is another team in the match and what a farewell would it be for Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's greatest cricketer.

And if precedent is anything to go by, the force is with Murali. The final ball of his Test career yielded a wicket, his 800th. The final ball of his international career at home fetched another and led to a comfortable win in the World Cup semi-final. Injury or not, who'd bet against him bowing on one leg and walking off the field with a handsome smile?

Fans in the subcontinent can sometimes be accused of missing the bigger picture by obsessing with individuals and certainly no one man can win the World Cup by himself. But that Tendulkar and Murali lend this World Cup final a certain poignancy and romance is unquestionable. Neither deserves disappointment but that's the cruelty of sport: for one dream realised tomorrow, there will be one broken. Murali has already been part of a World Cup-winning team but, if India lose tomorrow, Tendulkar will never know the feeling.

Neither deserves disappointment but that's the cruelty of sport: for one dream realised tomorrow, there will be one broken. Murali has already been part of a World Cup-winning team but, if India lose tomorrow, Tendulkar will never know the feeling.

Their craft and ways are different, but there are remarkable similarities between Tendulkar and Murali. Their careers have almost run concurrently and they have built records that are unlikely to be ever broken. Neither has allowed fame to corrupt them or divert them from their path. Both have made their nations proud not merely by their achievements on the field, but also with the dignity and grace they have conducted themselves off it. The controversies that Murali's action generated were not of his making; if anything, the way he has dealt with them has merely enhanced his reputation. And if Tendulkar can be accused of anything it is of being too reticent.

They have even had similar rivals. When they dazzled, Brian Lara and Shane Warne were more magical and compelling, but Tendulkar and Murali have endured because their devotion to the game was purer and they allowed nothing to distract them. And over the years they have become strong symbols of national identity in a way Lara and Warne could never have become.

And from their team-mates they have not merely earned respect but genuine affection. Murali has always been the soul of the Sri Lankan dressing room. Both Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara spoke endearingly about what a "nuisance" Murali is with his constant chattering about cricket. "He perhaps thinks he knows more about batting than Sachin," Jayawardene said. Murali, already a star, was the first team-mate to take him out for a meal when Jayawardene was a nobody, and he was neither the first nor the last one to receive his kindness. "Murali is always there for you," Jayawardene said.

Tendulkar has never been as effusive by nature but, from all accounts, young players are drawn to him. Unlike some of his predecessors whose presence was intimidating, Tendulkar has been a calming influence in the dressing room, leading not merely by example but by doing little things to put at ease younger players who might have otherwise been star-struck by him.

If there is anything lacking between them, it's the absence of the kind of rivalry forged between either Tendullkar and Warne, and Murali and Lara. Leave aside a grand series, or full innings or a spell, it's hard to remember a moment of magic involving them. And remarkably, even though India and Sri Lanka have played each other incessantly in the last few years, our ball-by-ball records show only 91 balls in ODIs and 366 balls in Tests between Tendulkar and Murali.

The World Cup can have only one winner tomorrow. Neither Tendulkar nor Murali would mind personal failure in their final World Cup match if their team ends up on the winner's podium. For cricket's sake, though, let's pray that these two titans rouse each other to a battle worthy of them.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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