Lanka team: Quiet, ruthless

Updated: 02 April 2011 16:11 IST

Away from the arch lights and drum beats, Sri Lanka have arrived at the final not quite unnoticed but in the unfussy manner that befits a team that plays vibrantly but rarely boisterously.

Mumbai:

Away from the arch lights and drum beats, Sri Lanka have arrived at the final not quite unnoticed but in the unfussy manner that befits a team that plays vibrantly but rarely boisterously. Their journey to the final has been quiet and efficient; they have rarely been stretched and, apart from a brief middle-order stutter against New Zealand in the semi-final, their progress through the knockout phase has been so smooth it's almost eerie.

From the beginning this has been a World Cup of two halves. From the moment Virender Sehwag crashed the first ball of the tournament to the cover boundary, Group B remained a constant whirl of action and drama whereas Group A flowed along serenely and predictably, simmering and occasionally bubbling but never really boiling over. The pattern has continued through the knockout stages: India have been through the wringer with two high-octane and emotionally draining matches against Australia and Pakistan - two finals before the final, if you insist - whereas Sri Lanka have cast away their opponents as gently as blowing away a feather.

And now these two contrasting worlds are to collide. It could work either way. India could be so exhausted that one more tough match could break them; or they could be so battle-hardened that nothing would faze or shake them. Sri Lanka, having eased through to the final, could be the fresher and the more relaxed team for the biggest match or - never having really been challenged, their only loss in the tournament coming more than a month ago - they could be ill-prepared for the rigour and the pressure of a final.

The reality is that not being overwrought suits the way Sri Lanka play their cricket. They are fortunate that of all the cricket-playing nations in the subcontinent, their fans, though not lacking passion, are the most balanced. While they celebrate their victories with as much vigour as their neighbours, they retain the perspective to take defeat in their stride.

Consequently, Sri Lankan cricketers lead the most normal life among their peers on the subcontinent.

In India, no one is ever allowed to forget that this is a World Cup that must be won for Sachin Tendulkar. Sri Lanka too have in their ranks a legend playing his final World Cup. In fact, Muttiah Muralitharan, fitness permitting, will be playing his final match for his country on Saturday. But it can be safely said that it will barely be a distraction for Sri Lanka.

Mahela Jayawardene, who gave up the captaincy of his own volition but is happy to assist Kumar Sangakkara as vice-captain for this tournament, was asked if Sri Lanka were playing to win this World Cup for Muralitharan. His answer carried simple clarity. "When we started this World Cup campaign our goal was to win this for Sri Lanka," he said, "we haven't changed our thinking." The Sri Lankan team isn't shorn of high achievers - Muralitharan is a colossus of the world game, and Jayawardene and Sangakkara are among the most prolific batsmen in contemporary cricket - but Sri Lankan cricket has rarely been about superstardom, and it's a strength they will carry to the final.

Jayawardene also spoke candidly about the significance of the first all-Asian final. Did it mean that the balance of power - in the cricketing sense - had shifted decisively towards Asia? "We mustn't forget that this is a World Cup on the subcontinent," he said, "and obviously home conditions suit us. In fact, it would have been disappointing if Asian teams hadn't made it to the final. The World Cup will be played on a different continent the next time, and we can say the balance of power has truly shifted if two teams from the subcontinent make the final then."

Sri Lanka have done their bit. This is their second consecutive appearance in a World Cup final and it can be said to their credit that both in 2007 and 2011 the finals have featured the tournament's two best teams. Added to their 1996 victory, they have now made it to three finals in the last five World Cups. And as an aside, each World Cup final since 1992 has featured a team from the subcontinent.

That Sri Lanka and India have played each other with mind-numbing regularity over the last three years confers on neither team a natural advantage. But that the teams are so familiar with each other does lead to a sense of anticipation with regard to strategy. Sri Lanka have played with three frontline spinners almost throughout the tournament, trusting Angelo Mathews with a few overs of medium pace in the bowling Powerplay. Will they change their team to adjust to their opponents? Will Virender Sehwag force them to opt for another quick?

When they played a group match at the Wankhede, the pitch was so tinged with green that Jayawardene said they struggled to separate it from the square. On Thursday, though, it looked a perfect brown and it is unlikely that grass will be allowed to grow on it over the next couple of days. Though this is Sachin Tendulkar's home turf, this is an entirely new surface, and Sri Lanka are the only finalists to have played on it. Does that somehow negate the fact that Sri Lanka have managed to win only one ODI against India in India in the past year?

In reality, none of this will matter when the teams step on to the field on Saturday. As Sangakkara said after his team made it to the final, nothing of what they have achieved so far will mean anything if they fail to get over the line on Saturday. That India will start as favourites, however slightly, will suit Sri Lanka. They have never been the glamour boys of the subcontinent, but they are a team of substance. Tendulkar and Sehwag have cornered all the attention during this World Cup, but Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga have been the most successful opening pair of the tournament, and, for all the buzz about the Indian batting machine, three of the top five run-getters in the World Cup are Sri Lanka batsmen.

But they would rather not talk about it.

Topics : India Sri Lanka Cricket ICC World Cup, 2011
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