Two shiny teams fight for glory
It has fallen upon this final at the great venue of Kensington Oval, Barbados, not just to deliver a champion of the world but to save face for the game on its biggest stage. For all its supposed wonderful health, the tripe dished out over the past two months has been an embarrassment. All the proper players in the world plus a few others were put in the most evocative of destinations and look what they came up with. It was hoped the last week might rescue the tournament. Nothing of the sort. Two one-sided romps and fans asking each other when?
In lovely St Lucia on Wednesday the occasion failed to feel like a World Cup semi-final. In inviting bids that covered a wide range of requirements the organisers may have been trying to do the fair thing. But what price a cricket culture?
As absent as it was in St Lucia, so unmissable it is in Barbados. Cricket sprouts out of the very earth of Barbados. More than any other Caribbean territory, and by extension any place in the world, cricket has been its making, it has described its society, its culture, its life, its times. Whether or not there will be local flavour at the ground - even in Barbados it is not uncommon to be told they'd just sit this one out thank you, and be back when regular cricket comes around - the ethos of cricket is in the air. This thing matters, it is reassuring to feel.
Two teams have shone in the ninth World Cup and their anticipated match-up is the closest fans have been able to come to a wet dream in the tournament. Australia and Sri Lanka do their thing and at their best they have between them all of cricket covered. Mahela Jayawardene, in whom captaincy has brought out the player of the calibre observers had detected from an early age, has spoken again and again about Sri Lanka needing to play their own brand of cricket. There is a defiance to this. We do not need to be Australia to beat 'em. South Africa tried it and failed, he said.
What it means is that Australia's power can be deflected rather than met head-on. It is relevant in the nature of the general vibe, and it is certainly in the batting - the Lankans prefer twirling to belting - but in the most vital aspect these two teams are more similar to each other than any other.
Each has the kind of bowling line-ups usually found on paper, where specifications can be constructed to fancy. The first over is bowled by a slyly tormenting pin-point left-arm swinger at 125kph. His new-ball partner is normally a firebrand slingshot of terrible pace and inexplicable method. Each has a wrist-spinner of mystery who has had a superb tournament.
Hereabouts Sri Lanka have the edge, for no matter the excellence of the Australian trio, there is something more to be said for the greatness of Chaminda Vaas and especially Muttiah Muralitharan. The difference is in the other specialist bowler. Australia have Glenn McGrath.
And McGrath it is who will enjoy this Barbados pitch more than any bowler in contemporary cricket, especially if he should get to use it first. He certainly did a fortnight ago with three wickets in his opening spell in the rout of Ireland. McGrath has never really needed more than an off stump and an outside edge to aim at. Giving him bounce is presenting him nail, hammer and coffin. He is hoping it will do for Sanath Jayasuriya as it has done several times down under.
If a weakness must be found in Australia it is that they haven't been fully tested, though if it was any other way it would have been undoubtedly played up as proof of their vulnerability. So dominant have they been that, for instance, Michael Hussey has got just two hits in the last six games, and he didn't get past nine runs in the first four, mostly because he came in so late. Moreover, as Jayawardene says: "They are human."
"This game doesn't get any bigger," Ricky Ponting, the finest batsman and leader of the best team in the world, said. "For guys who have been around quite a while like myself this is the reason you still play the game."
A Sri Lankan win will be the bigger story, for it will be as much a case of winning against the odds of the system as Australia's would be direct product of theirs. Whenever Jayawardene has been asked about the '96 World Cup he has answered within a historical context which suggests an awareness of both what the game means to the country and what it means to be good at the game. From amateurism to world champions in such a short time was one of the remarkable stories of the game, and if Jayawardene's men can rise to this success from the pit of power-mongering and chaos that is the administration of Sri Lankan cricket then it may be almost comparable. And even as the team arose this morning in the Caribbean, back home the international airport at Colombo was closed for fear of an LTTE strike. In times of trouble citizens turn to sport for hope and those of Sri Lanka could use some now.
Let us hope for a glistening, fabulous, luminous match, a match that brings forward the finest, most varied skills of the game in the most challenging of circumstances in the most stirring of ambiences: a match which does the sport proud, a match which leaves a shining gloss on this long and largely despondent affair.
Australia - 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Shane Watson, 8 Brag Hogg, 9 Shaun Tait, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Glenn McGrath.
Sri Lanka - 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Upul Tharanga, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Dilshan Tillakaratne, 6 Chamara Silva, 7 Russel Arnold, 8 Dilhara Fernando, 9 Chaminda Vaas, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan.
Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04