No fantasy this. India meet the other underdogs of the tournament, New Zealand, who have made a silent march into the ICC KnockOut final with a thrilling victory over Pakistan in the other semi-final, after having brushed aside the challenge from Zimbabwe in the previous round. Asked to comment on the unlikely pairing of the two teams in the title clash, Indian captain Sourav Ganguly's reply was "that is why people say you should never comment in this game."
The Indian side, for long termed as paper tigers, have played to its potential throughout the competition. They have shown professionalism in their approach and some fire, which was lacking earlier. However, the fact remains that the team again depends on Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly to provide an explosive start. Tendulkar looked well set to play a long innings on Friday but was out to a beauty by Kallis. Ganguly said "I wanted runs from him (Tendulkar) against South Africa. Now I hope he has been saving it for the final". Going by the law of averages, Tendulkar is set for a big knock and this augurs well for the Indians.
If Tendulkar scores 15 runs in Sunday's final at Nairobi, he will reach yet another milestone in his career. He will surpass former Indian captain Mohd. Azharuddin to become the world's highest run getter in one-day internationals. Tendulkar has so far made 9364 runs in 252 games at an impressive average of 41.99 including 25 centuries. Azharuddin has made 9378 runs in 334 matches at an average of 36.92.
One hopes that Ganguly continues from where he left off against the Proteas. After his amazing innings of 141 not out yesterday, Ganguly has made the transition from Prince to King of Calcutta while Yuvraj Singh looks to be a worthy successor. With each game, Yuvraj Singh is looking better and better and this is a good sign for the side. `Mr. Reliable' Rahul Dravid as usual has been solid. Vinod Kambli, Robin Singh and Vijay Dahiya, who have generally made an entry during the slog overs, have not been tested much but for a brief spell against the Australians.
Ganguly, after the side's victory on Friday, said "Everything was falling in place for us today. This was not the best pitch of the tournament but I knew one of the three top order batsmen had to bat right through the innings to post a big total." He added at the post match conference that the strip used for Friday's semi-final was the worst of the three played on by India during the tournament.
The bowling yesterday was again pepped up by Zaheer Khan who looks impressive with every game. He has played a major part in India progressing this far. He has been ably supported by Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble while Ajit Agarkar surprisingly bowled second change against South Africa. For tomorrow's game, India needs to include Sunil Joshi and may examine this option closely. With the matches having been played on the same pitches for over the last ten days, Joshi will be a better bet on a wicket which spun yesterday. The Indian think tank may even be forced to finally make a change in the side for Robin Singh is a doubtful starter. The gutsy allrounder has dislocated a finger in his left hand and his replacement could be either Joshi or Sridharan Sriram.
Giving the New Zealanders their due, it must be said that it looks like a well-knit team. They have fine strikers of the ball in Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming, Roger Twose and Craig McMillan. Twose has played two match winning knocks and looks to be a threat while McMillan has shown a glimpse of what he is capable of.
New Zealand have been without the services of ace allrounder Chris Cairns who has missed the matches so far due to an injury and is expected to undergo a fitness test. If he passes the test, he will add fillip to the side to try and help them lift their first major international title. Chris Harris is also another player who can be expected to give a threat to the Indians with his vast experience and cool temperament.
Though the Kiwis may not have strike bowlers in the mould of McGrath, Akram, Donald or Brett Lee, they have in their side some quality bowlers like Shayne O'Connor, man-of-the-match against Pakistan after picking five wickets. He has been ably assisted with the new ball by Geoff Allot. In support they have Harris, Styris and Astle while Paul Wiseman too has played his part admirably with his offspinners. Though the Kiwis may not look a formidable outfit, the Indians may have to be careful on a wicket which is playing slow and low for one can expect them to restrict the Indians from posting a big total with their steady attack.
The New Zealanders, who are in the final of a major tournament for the first time, will go all out and give more than 100 percent on the field to win. Speaking of fielding, New Zealand have traditionally been a very good side but the Indians have shown during this tournament that they can match the Kiwis in this department. With an overall prize money of over $1 million at stake for the tournament, India does seem to have a realistic chance of earning $370,000 as the winners cheque having won all their three games while New Zealand, having played a game less will earn $340,000 if they win the final. The losers will earn $110,000 less than the winners, who will pocket $250,000.
Going by the last few games, one can expect Sunday's final to be a cracker of a game with India trying to redeem its pride. The team will be eager to showcase their talent before the BCCI president AC Muthiah, secretary JY Lele and former president Raj Singh Dungarpur, who are all present at the venue. After all, India last won a major tournament in 1985 when they lifted the World Championship of Cricket title in Australia. And if the Indians go on to take the trophy under stand-in coach Anshuman Gaekwad, it could even lead to a debate on the issue of hiring a foreign coach. But for that, India have to win the game first. Will they?