By Murali Venkatesan
“It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results” - Dale Carnegie, on team work.
I felt muted joy when India defeated Pakistan to enter the World Cup final. My feelings were much more visceral when India overcame Pakistan in the less important game (in the context of India’s progression in the tournament) during the 2003 World Cup. Despite all the hype, the recently-concluded match simply had an air of inevitability about it even before it began.
The Mohali pitch had foxed everyone, including captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Unlike traditional Mohali pitches, it had neither seam movement nor did it have carry. And just to prove every pundit wrong, it was the much-maligned duo of the Indian seam attack, Messrs. Ashish Nehra & Munaf Patel that took it upon itself to utilize these conditions well to defend India’s slightly below-par total. With this performance, the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place for India as they head to Wankhede Stadium for the final.
I loved the post-match presentation. While Shahid Afridi’s gracious remarks set the tone, the very fact that the Mohali crowd did not boo him was immensely gratifying. The Pakistanis go back home with their heads held high, having punched well above their capability throughout the tournament – a marked departure from their ignominious returns from the 2003 and 2007 World Cup campaigns.
Without dueling superstars in their ranks, the team gelled well. It is amazing to see their almost inexhaustible supply of superb bowling talent – as the popular Hindi film dialogue goes, “Yeh kaun chakhi ka atta khathe hain re!”
I was over the moon when Dhoni said he had misread the pitch and went in with the wrong team composition. A captain acknowledging his mistakes while still in the warm embrace of a well-earned victory - there is no better sign of a champion team. Sachin Tendulkar’s comments on “being calm and doing our job in the final” further reinforced the fact that the team has its feet on the ground and eyes on the prize.
Champion teams are not made on the backs of singular events. They are best evaluated over a period of time and one often finds that different people put their hand up as the situation demands. There will be an odd loss here and there, but the team’s self-belief and chemistry is such that they claw their way out of most tough situations. India is in that zone now.
Based on an earlier interview by coach Gary Kirsten, I believe that the Indian team had consciously made a choice to keep the intensity low during the league phase and ratcheting up the intensity in synch with the knock-out phase. Both, the physical and mental prowess of the team, have peaked at the right time due to this strategy. Salute, coach Kirsten!
With not much being known about the Wankhede wicket, I am predicting that a flat track will be on offer. I expect it to be a high scoring game and in keeping with tradition, the team winning the toss will elect to bat.
Sri Lanka has a well-rounded team. The top three run scorers in the tournament are Sri Lankans. Their batting rests on Kumar Sangakarra’s shoulders with Upul Tharanga looking very good. Tillakaratne Dilshan, in my opinion, has been riding his luck in most part throughout the tournament. His 400 odd runs notwithstanding, I expect him to fail with the bat in the finals.
While the Sri Lankan middle and lower middle order has been pretty ordinary during this tournament, in Mahaea Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, and Angelo Mathews, they have no dearth of batting talent. On the bowling front, Sri Lanka are truly well rounded.
I believe that Sri Lanka will play the injured Muttiah Muralithran along with Rangana Herath as the two specialist spinners with Dilshan. This is a nod to the fact that the Indian batsmen have had the measure of Ajantha Mendis over the past several outings. I expect the seam attack to feature Lasitha Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara and Mathews.
All indications are that Nehra will sit out in favor of Ravichandran Ashwin. On current form, this Indian XI is probably the best that has ever turned up for India in a World Cup match. Whether it be the coaching staff, the captain, the depth of batting, or a well rounded bowling attack – in the conditions on offer, India is slightly ahead on batting and about on par on the bowling front.
If the last two matches are anything to go by, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Ashwin form a pretty potent ring around the batsmen, thereby negating a big upside on this front to the Sri Lankans. One area where the Sri Lankans are way ahead is the balanced approach of their ardent supporters – Indian fans can learn a thing or two from these passionate souls.
Thus far, Sri Lanka have had a smooth ride to the World Cup with no major hiccups. India on the other hand have had several high octane encounters that have battle hardened them. In other circumstances, I would be worried about an Indian burn-out after the last two matches – but with this team, their current form, and the home ground advantage, I believe this decisively tilts the game in India’s favor.
Looking forward to the final, I am going out on a limb and predicting three things – India will win, Tendulkar will make his 100th international ton, and Virender Sehwag will play a blinder well in excess of 50 runs.
Life is good!
(Murali is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. When he gets time off from his cricketing duties, whether it be playing or watching cricket, he attends to his duties as a husband, father, and engineering new solar technology solutions)