Mumbai: Mahela Jayawardene saved his best innings of the tournament for the day his team most needed it, as Sri Lanka withstood an inspired spell from Zaheer Khan to set India a stiff target of 275 in the World Cup final in Mumbai. On a hard and true surface that assisted the seamers but offered value for correct strokeplay, Jayawardene lifted Sri Lanka's tempo after a sluggish start before clicking into overdrive in the batting Powerplay, to finish unbeaten on a priceless 103 not out from 88 balls.
Four years ago at Sabina Park, Jayawardene produced a supreme century against New Zealand to carry his side to their second World Cup final, but this was an innings of even more exquisite application. He came to the crease with his side under the cosh at 60 for 2 in the 17th over, having been throttled by a Zaheer new-ball spell that contained three consecutive maidens and just six runs in five overs all told. But he responded with a tempo that scarcely wavered from a run a ball, until with Nuwan Kulasekera for company, he opened his shoulders to power through to his hundred from 83 balls - the sixth man to do so on the game's biggest stage.
The contrast between the start of Sri Lanka's innings and its finish was stark. With Zaheer leading the line, India restricted their opponents to 31 for 1 in the mandatory ten-over Powerplay, their lowest total of the tournament to date, below the 42 for 2 that they had made in their group-stage defeat against Pakistan. But then, at the death, the same attack was battered for 63 in the batting Powerplay, with Zaheer's final two overs being butchered for 17 and 18 respectively. Thisara Perera, in his first match for almost a month, set the seal on a stunning turnaround with 22 from nine deliveries, including a last-ball six that was battered from a good length over midwicket.
India's bowlers, led supremely by Zaheer Khan, made light of a controversy at the toss to keep Sri Lanka's powerful top-order in check on a firm surface at the Wankhede Stadium, as the World Cup final got underway amid a cauldron of anticipation in Mumbai. At the halfway mark of their innings, Sri Lanka's hopes of a defendable total were in the hands of their most experienced campaigners, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, after a focussed bowling effort had led to the extraction of both openers inside the first 17 overs.
For an occasion of this magnitude, cool heads were the order of the day, and none proved cooler than India's spearhead. Zaheer's exemplary first spell realised seam, swing, pace and bounce, all allied to an immaculate line and length, and he reeled off three consecutive maidens against the hapless Upul Tharanga, who then snicked the first ball of Zaheer's fourth over to Virender Sehwag, whose sharp snaffle, low to his right at first slip, epitomised a fielding performance that had risen to new heights of awareness on this, the biggest day of 22 careers.
As one of five veterans from India's previous World Cup final appearance in 2003, Zaheer's efforts could not have been further removed from the over-pumped performance he had produced against Australia in Johannesburg, in which he was cracked for 15 runs in his first over alone, and 67 in seven all told. At the other end, his calm influence initially brought out the better side of the mercurial Sreesanth, who was called into the vacancy created by Ashish Nehra's broken finger, despite not having played since the tournament opener in Dhaka, in which he had been flogged for 53 runs in five overs by Imrul Kayes.
However, as the innings progressed, so the errors started to slip into Sreesanth's spell. Tillakaratne Dilshan loosened the early shackles with two fours in three balls in his third over, before Sangakkara followed up with two in two - a premeditated pull and an effortless straight drive - in a fifth over that also included an official warning for running on the wicket, and a free hit that was slashed through third man by Dilshan. But at the end of the mandatory Powerplay, Sri Lanka's total of 31 for 1 was their lowest of the tournament to date, including the 42 for 2 they had made in their group-stage defeat against Pakistan.
The introduction of Harbhajan Singh in the 14th over was a critical moment of the innings. Given the hardness of the wicket, both teams decided to put more faith in seam than spin, with Ravi Ashwin overlooked once again, and Sri Lanka even going so far as to omit one of their two principal spinners, Ajantha Mendis. Harbhajan opened up with a tidy first over that was milked for a pair of singles, but then struck crucially with the third ball of his second over, when the dangerous Dilshan attempted a slog-sweep but was duped by the bounce and dragged the ball onto his own stumps before he could build on his start of 33 from 49 balls.
India had two early wickets for their efforts, but to crack Sri Lanka's outer shell, three is the absolute minimum requirement, and with Sangakkara biding his time, Jayawardene crunched Harbhajan through point for four, before turning his attentions to Sreesanth, who was steered along the ground through third man, and the spin of Yuvraj Singh, who was belted through midwicket as he dropped short in his first over.
Sangakkara's performance could prove crucial in so many respects, for while he continued to build on his start, so the inquests began into a peculiar scenario at the toss, which had to be taken for a second time after the match referee, Jeff Crowe, claimed he was unable to hear his initial call. His opposite number, Dhoni, looked unimpressed at the situation, but accepted the eventual outcome with a shake of the hand. But given that only two teams batting second have won the World Cup final in nine previous attempts, it had the makings of a story that could run and run.
For the time being, however, India's seamers were doing their team proud, and the manner in which Sri Lanka's respond could be decisive. In that respect, the loss of Angelo Mathews to a thigh strain is a grievous blow for Sri Lanka, denying them as it does a very effective seam option as well as one of the best death-overs hitters in their line-up. Chamara Kapugedera and Nuwan Kulasekara have been drafted in to balance his two roles, with the replacement spinner Suraj Randiv a surprise inclusion ahead of Mendis, whose mysteries are perhaps too familiar to India in home conditions - in three previous ODIs in the country, he has taken three wickets at 49.33, at an economy rate of 5.92.
The seamer Thisara Perera also played in place in place of Rangana Herath, which meant that an immense burden will rest on the absolute veteran in their line-up, Muttiah Muralitharan, whose 350th and final ODI will be an emotional occasion. He was barely fit for the semi-final victory over New Zealand, with a combination of groin, knee and hamstring injuries hampering his mobility. But he still chimed in with two key wickets including one with his last delivery on home soil. And there's no question he is ready to play through the pain.