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An intense tournament has produced two deserving title-contenders who promise a gripping finale
October 6, 2012
Sri Lanka are desperate to reward a decade of quality by winning their first major tournament since they surprised the cricketing world by claiming the World Cup 16 years ago; a West Indies win would bring hope in the Caribbean that Twenty20 can be the catalyst for their revival, just as the 50-over game inspired Sri Lanka to greater glories all those years ago.
For the neutral, yearning for a victory that will be good for cricket, there has rarely been a more difficult choice. Mahela Jayawardene, captain of Sri Lanka, deserves his intelligent and empathetic leadership of Sri Lanka to be recognised with a trophy after three near misses; Darren Sammy, a big-hearted captain whose affability has re-educated West Indies about the value of unity, equally deserves some reward for that.
Whatever the unpredictability of T20, few of those who have watched this tournament unfold doubt that Sri Lanka and West Indies are the appropriate teams to contest the final at Premadasa on Sunday. Sri Lanka, some seven-over nonsense against South Africa apart (10 overs, not five, should be the minimum length of a match) have been consistent, buzzy and well-drilled. West Indies, more strongly fancied in this tournament than they have been for a generation, have to no-one's great surprise provided a roller-coaster ride, domineering one minute, all at sea the next.
It has all been enormous fun. The malcontents who have seen their side crash out of World Twenty20, and who have lost interest as a consequence, need to recognise the narrowness of their thinking. What is there not to like about World Twenty20? For a few weeks, the best players in the world have been on show in an intense, tightly-scheduled tournament and, for all the unpredictability of the format, it has provided two deserving finalists.
The final promises many appealing match-ups but none will be more mouthwatering than Chris Gayle v Lasith Malinga. Gayle's commitment to batting long against Australia (how quickly our perceptions change that we can talk about "batting long" in T20) contributed to one the matures innings of his career and Australia, who had hoped that Mitchell Starc could expose him early, saw their plans frustrated. Sri Lanka will aim to keep Gayle on strike against Malinga as much as possible, but will want to save two of his overs for the death. It will be a key period.
This West Indies side is vulnerable. In their semi-final thumping of Australia, both Denesh Ramdin, at No.6, and Andre Russell, a place lower at No.7, look a place too high. Sammy, at No.8, has little form of note in the tournament. The pace attack amounts to the craft of Ravi Rampaul and little else, about as far away from the heyday of West Indies fast bowling as it is possible to be. But somehow they are in the final, their ability to muscle the ball many a mile leaving them brimful of confidence.
Sri Lanka's side covers more bases. They were not convincing champions at the start of the tournament, not to this observer at any rate. That was partly because no-one was certain that their less-celebrated players would perform as reliably as they have. But it was also because of the way that their achievement in reaching three finals in ICC tournaments in recent years was being represented not as a worthy reward for a side punching above its weight - which is how it should properly be viewed - but as a fatal flaw worthy of criticism. They have not allowed the high expectations to consume them.
Now Jayawardene is in his fourth ICC final for Sri Lanka. No current cricketer has graced the game more, nobody is more deserving of leading his side to victory. He has led Sri Lanka through difficult times, countering both the defeatism that could arise in a country that was bedevilled by a long war and the lack of an extensive infrastructure, and the small-minded political struggles that drained them further.
Throughout the hard years, Jayawardene and his close confidant, Kumar Sangakkara, have provided a stable environment in which young players could flourish, and have also shown Sri Lankan cricket the value of trust, integrity and sound planning. Jayawardene stood down from the captaincy and then dutifully took it up again when his work was in danger of being wasted.
Sri Lanka, because they have been more consistent, deserve to start slight favourites in front of their own fans. But all that could fly out of the window if Gayle and co. begin to launch the ball into orbit. Gayle has told the world that West Indies will win this tournament, and end years of suffering for Caribbean supporters, and it would be a foolish person who dares to tell him in advance that he is misguided.
We could be in for a treat. If the October monsoon stays away for just one more day, a successful tournament can have a memorable finale.
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