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The masters of asphyxiation

The masters of asphyxiation did it comfortably in the end. While you can accuse the Indians of lacking in nerve and heart to make the early overs count, so controlled was the Sri Lankan performance in the field that there is no telling what would have been the margin of victory had the Indians tried to force the pace early.

The Sri Lankan slow bowlers, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muthiah Muralitharan, Upul Chandana and Tilakarante Dilshan, will be hailed as the architects of this win, but the foundations were laid by the impressive opening spells from the opening bowlers, the magnificent Chaminda Vaas and the impressive Nuwan Zoysa. Between the third and the 12th overs, when the ball was hard and stroke-making was at its least difficult, India managed only 18 runs for the cost of two wickets. Once the asking rate climbed beyond six runs an over, Sri Lanka were the favourites.

Zoysa has been in and out of the Sri Lankan team but in this tournament, he was their most outstanding bowler, combining his height with a keen understanding of Sri Lankan pitches to make run-scoring difficult, while claming regular wickets. He got Sourav Ganguly with a steepler and strangled Sachin Tendulkar by a clever mix of slower balls and cutters. He bowled 39 dot balls, 17 of them to Tendulkar, and his eight-over spell cost only 16 runs. He didn't need to come back to finish the job.

With only 228 runs to defend against a powerful Indian batting line-up, it could have been argued that Sri Lanka's only chance lay in bowling India out. But Sri Lankan bowlers are masters of their conditions, and while their quick bowlers are adept at taking the pace off the ball, their slow bowlers - and they have the full gamut of them, two off-spinners of different kinds, a legspinner and a left-armer - have perfected the art of bowling wicket to wicket, varying the length and cutting off the angles. They gave another virtuoso performance in defending today by bowling 195 dot balls, and if you found yourself wondering how on earth India found themselves with an asking rate of eight in the last ten overs while chasing about 4.5, this was the answer: Sri Lankan bowlers simply refused to be put away.

The support from the fielders was excellent. India would rue the two muffed chances against Kumar Sangakarra, first dropped by Laxman going with hard hands at first slip when on 6, and then reprieved by Rahul Dravid and Laxmipathy Balaji in a simple run-out situation. Sri Lanka were relentless in the field, and pulled out two outstanding slip catches . The first, a low diving effort to the left from Mahela Jayawardene, removed Ganguly, and the second, a tumbling catch off a rebound by Dilshan, got rid of Dravid when he was in the middle of an innings-building partnership with Tendulkar - that, perhaps, was a decisive moment in the game.

For an Indian supporter, it was an embarrassing performance by a much-feted batting line-up. But the Indians have looked rusty throughout the tournament, and their best batsman of the day, Sachin Tendulkar, came up with a stodgy 74. While he kept India faintly in the hunt, it was a scratchy effort. At no stage in his innings did he look likely to deny Sri Lanka.

It was yet another case of Tendulkar's personal success not translating in to glory for his team. His 74 and another canny performance with the ball wasn't enough today. With 274 runs and 12 wickets he returns as Asia Cup's most successful all-round player, but India carry back another failure in a one-day final - their 10th since 2000 - which must make it all too depressing for him.

But India might have shot themselves in foot even before the match began. Ganguly has never made any secret about his preference for three fast bowlers, and it is a pre-disposition that runs contrary to his stand on picking batsmen. He is willing to risk breaking up India's most successful Test opening pair in recent years to ensure Yuvraj Singh - "too good a player to be sitting out"--gets a place in the side. Yet, time after time, he is prepared to leave either Anil Kumble or Harbhajan Singh on the bench to accommodate a third fast bowler. Picking your best eleven isn't bad logic, but it must be applied consistently. The question is simple: is Anil Kumble a lesser bowler than Zaheer Khan or Ashish Nehra? Why must he suffer the repeated indignity of being consigned to the bench?

It made even lesser sense given the conditions, which Indians can hardly plead ignorance to. Sri Lanka's overwhelming success-rate at home has been founded on spin bowling on slow, low and turning wickets and the Premadasa Stadium has a history of low-scoring matches being won by the sides managing to take the pace off the ball. That Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag were India's most successful bowlers today was no accident.

The Indian pace bowlers didn't disgrace themselves, but did India really need three of them? Between them, Irfan Pathan, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan bowled 20 overs for 90 runs, while Harbhajan Singh, Sehwag and Tendulkar bowled 30 for 120 runs. Sehwag and Tendulkar bowled in tandem between the 30th and 41st overs, conceding only 40 runs, and only three fours, with three wickets falling in this period. Zaheer alone conceded five fours, and was India's most expensive bowler.

What would have happened had Kumble played? Would it have made a difference of ten runs, or even more? Hard to say. However, from the evidence available from the field, Sri Lanka would have still won. Barring the last 18 balls of their last league match against India, they have been the most superior side in this tournament. The Asia Cup found its deserving winner.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India, and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.