All set for a compelling finale
After going at each other for the past two months, Australia and India clash in the first of three finals at the SCG on Sunday, and if recent encounters are any clue, expect some gripping cricket. Both have been involved in plenty of controversial moments on and off the field, adding to the entire drama which has made this last edition of the CB Series an enthralling affair.
A look back at the league phase, which ended on Friday in Melbourne with Australia losing narrowly to Sri Lanka, indicates that though India had a much tougher time getting to the finals, both teams have had similar strengths and problems. Both the batting line-ups are yet to find fluency even after eight games, but their bowlers have been getting better with every match.
In the four previous clashes against India in this tournament, Australia managed to win twice, in Adelaide and in Sydney, lost in Melbourne, while their first clash ended in a wash-out. Luckily for India they have had a valuable four-day rest after their previous game in Hobart, where they scored an emphatic victory against the Sri Lankans.
After Australia's defeat on Friday, Ponting admitted that the result has robbed them of some momentum going into the final, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni wants to ensure that India capitalise on that. "Australia look to dominate always so it's important to put them under pressure and they have been under pressure," Dhoni said at the SCG. "So I just hope we maintain that pressure."
Aware of the flat nature of the SCG wicket, both captains will not dither in batting first. Last time the teams met in Sydney, Australia piled on 317, the highest total in the tournament so far, and India, after a top-order collapse, scampered to within 19 runs of the target. Australia have maintained an almost unchanged team throughout, and their only likely alteration to Friday's side is the inclusion of Matthew Hayden - who was rested on Friday - for Brad Haddin, with James Hopes slipping down to No. 7.
For India, though, a few problems persist regarding team composition. Dhoni said there was still confusion about his final XI and the main concern remained the opening partner for Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar has opened with three different men in the eight games - five times with Virender Sehwag, twice with Gautam Gambhir and once with Robin Uthappa. India's best start came in their second match, against Sri Lanka, when Tendulkar and Sehwag cracked a 68-run stand. The next best was 45 between the same pair in Canberra against the same opponents, but in the last four games India have had dismal starts of 18, 3, 2 and 20.
A nagging concern has also been the form of two of their top batsmen, Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds, both of whom have flourished in just one game so far. Despite the wobbly nature of their middle order Australia have secured five victories and much of the credit goes to Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, who have withstood the opposition bowling onslaught time and again to consolidate and push the side out of danger.
Calling it right at the toss has also helped the Australians, who have preferred to bat first and then call upon their magnificent bowlers to strangle the opposition. On the two occasions when they have chased a target, it's been hard work: in the series opener, against India at the Gabba, Australia were 3 for 51 in the eighth over when rain ended the game; on Friday they were 0 for 107 in the 15th over chasing 222, yet managed to lose by 13 runs.
The success story for both teams has been their bowling attack. Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh have proved to be constant thorns for the opposition, while Brett Lee has been an outstanding spearhead for Australia. He has bowled throughout the summer with a hostility that no batsman has been able to consistently stand up to. Lee's closing spell at the MCG when India were chasing a small total was one of the best of the summer, while Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Bracken and Hopes have offered excellent support.
Just like in the Test series, the off-field banter has fueled the tension on the field. If it was the Harbhajan-Symonds clash that ignited the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Matthew Hayden's comments on Harbhajan and Ishant have ensured there will be no love lost between the two sides on the last leg of the season. Sydney is hosting its annual Mardi Gras celebration on Saturday, and the CB Series final couldn't have come at much better time. On the field, though, it's likely to be much more than fun and games.
Australia (likely) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 James Hopes, 8 Brad Hogg, 9 Brett Lee, 10, Mitchell Johnson, 11 Nathan Bracken.
India (likely) 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Robin Uthappa, 3 Gautam Gambhir, 4 Rohit Sharma, 5 Yuvraj Singh, 6 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt, wk), 7 Virender Sehwag/Praveen Kumar, 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Sreesanth, 11 Ishant Sharma.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo