Chasers v/s Bridesmaids
The almighty colossal groan you heard at the end of the India-South Africa semi final was the collective efforts of more than a billion cricketing fans not only in India and Sri Lanka, but across the world.
Yes, it’s another ICC event and another crunch game between Asia’s two most opportunistic teams. It is probably the 9825th meeting between India and Sri Lanka, but this time, nobody is complaining.
It is the final of a World Cup, just over three years to the day they faced each other on a balmy April night in Mumbai—where India rewrote the history books, and where Sri Lanka were further relegated to the damning annuls of statistical oblivion.
A final of a World Cup, even if between Bangladesh and Ireland, is always a special event. Rivalries are ignored, controversies are forgotten, because the tag ‘World Champions’ isn’t an easy crown to hold—as India have consistently discovered over the period of three years.
The bizarre aspect about India’s march to the final is the fact that they have easily looked the best T20 team in the world (disclaimer: in THESE conditions), only weeks after being demolished in New Zealand. Dhoni’s ‘boys 2 men’ have shown an uncanny ability of stepping up in ICC tournaments, but they were always a weak T20 side since 2007—the World Cup win that looked increasingly like a one-off fluke tournament for this team. The ODI side is a bit different from the T20 side, with them losing everything in between the World Cup and the Champions Trophy, preferring to peak only during these ICC events in stark contrast to South African teams.
Under Dhoni, this is the first and only team looking for a ‘Grand Slam’ in tournament cricket—already reigning World Champions and winners of the Champions Trophy. A T20 Champion tag will silence all his doubters and give him an even-longer rope in Tests—which, in hindsight, may not always be a good thing.
Much like the Champions Trophy run last year, India are the only unbeaten team to reach the final. They have destroyed West Indies, Pakistan, Australia and Bangladesh in the group stages. Led by the master of chases Kohli, they gave South Africa a good cricketing lesson in the semi-finals, chasing down a tricky score and confirming their tag as overwhelming tournament favorites. The way they went about the 170+ chase will have the Sri Lankans worried, because it was as perfectly paced as a perfect chase could be. The openers started quickly, fell at the right times, Kohli took over and paced his innings brilliantly, with Yuvraj and finally Raina chipping in with perfectly-timed cameos, before Dhoni delivered the knockout punch by playing out the final ball of the penultimate over so that Kohli could hit the winning runs. That, if anything, was the sign of a confident team enjoying their cricket. It is a far cry from the team that steps out of the subcontinent and whimpers its way back to the shores to roar again. Atleast they roar in style, and make fans forget their sins with such performances unlike the team they’re facing…
X-factor: Ashwin. He has been India’s Man Of The Series so far, and his fans will be perplexed by such varied stretches of form on different pitches. On Mishra’s off day against South Africa, Ashwin bowled the T20 ball of the decade to bowl Amla on his first legal ball.
This is Sri Lanka’s 3rd T20 final, to add to the two consecutive World Cup finals. Pakistan defeated them in 2009, West Indies in 2012 and now, India have the opportunity to absolutely deflate them and give them the tag of chokers. This team is a mystery; they are always pre-tournament favorites in Asia, stutter a bit during the group stages before turning it on in the semifinals to get knocked out in the final. This has been a consistent pattern, irrespective of form or pedigree. Sangakkara and Jayawardene have been silent observers and participants through the years, with their last international T20 on Sunday, and they will hope that their last match plays out unlike Muralitharan’s at Mumbai 3 years ago.
The two stalwarts deserve something for their efforts, but their team has always lacked the X-factor, despite possessing some of the most dangerous slow bowlers in world cricket. Their team selections in must-win matches confound, and Malinga will do well to keep it simple against a rampaging Indian team. By eliminating tormentors West Indies in the semis, Lanka have placed themselves in a position where their destinies lie in their own hands, as always. A loss here will even make the Indians feel bad for them.
X-Factor: Herath. Or will they play Mendis? You never know, with this Sri Lankan team.
It really depends on who plays better on the day. Experience says that India often does play better in finals lately, but Sri Lanka will be craving for this one title. They might just want it more.