Legends collide in Cricket World Cup final
Sporting icons come in all shapes and sizes. You don't have to be a strapping six-footer to capture the hearts of a nation. Legends are those who have achieved and keep on achieving, regardless of physique. India and Sri Lanka both possess such a hero crucial to their chances of lifting cricket's glittering prize.
Sachin Tendulkar of India and Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka are of similar age. They were born less than a year apart and have become, quite simply, two of the finest cricketers in history.
Together, they represent the leading run maker and leading wicket taker in international cricket. The superlatives are almost endless. In almost every category, Tendulkar and Muralitharan top the charts. There are simply no more records to break. They own the lot.
Their respective careers are in their twilight, but neither is ready to go quietly.
The ICC World Cup final will be their last showdown. Muralitharan has already retired from test cricket and this is his final fling in the one-day arena. And both men will be the wrong side of 40 when the World Cup travels to Australia and New Zealand in 2015.
Tendulkar's personal trophy cabinet is a medal short. Despite his prowess and longevity, the "Little Master" has never won the World Cup. Eight years ago in South Africa, he was named Man of the Series, but India was crushed by mighty Australia in the finale at Johannesburg.
The entire cricket world is pulling for him. What could be more fitting than for Tendulkar to hit the winning run in his home town in his last World Cup? Tears of joy from a grateful and adoring nation would flow like the Ganges.
Let's just say he has the sympathy vote.
Tendulkar, though, doesn't need sympathy. He needs support — and plenty of it — to crown his career and capture a second World Cup for India. He cannot do it alone. He requires teammates to score runs and bowl accurately to restrict the opposition.
The signs are encouraging.
Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar's opening partner, has done his bit to keep up. Both have averaged over 50 at the World Cup and Sehwag doesn't hang about. He's an aggressive stroke maker who tends to score rapidly — ideal for ODIs.
Yuvraj Singh has propped up the middle order more than most. A century and four 50s at this tournament are a testament to his capabilities, but he'll need to put his semifinal Golden Duck behind him to be mentally prepared for the final itself.
Muralitharan knows what it takes to win the World Cup. Fifteen years ago, he was part of the Sri Lanka team which hoisted the trophy in Pakistan. One win shy of repeating the feat, "Murali" is as effective as ever at taking wickets, but wear and tear is clearly taking its toll. Muralitharan has been nursed through the World Cup with a variety of ailments.
A lesser player would have rested but, given his ability and inspirational qualities, it's inconceivable he would miss the big one.
Fortunately, the Sri Lankans boast a formidable batting lineup. Tillakaratne Dilshan has scored more runs than any other player at the World Cup and captain Kumar Sangakkara is hot on his heels. Add Upul Tharanga to the mix and India's bowlers have their work cut out.
As tournament co-hosts, it is no surprise India and Sri Lanka have reached the final. Both have made the most of home advantage, losing only a single game each in their own backyards. Surely, the pendulum swings towards India because it is hosting the final in Mumbai, its biggest city.
The home team will have the crowd on its side. It will also have all the pressure to deliver, and give Tendulkar the perfect sendoff.
Unlike Sri Lanka, India has yet to play in Mumbai during this World Cup, but the visitors seem to have taken to it. Sangakkara smashed a century and Muralitharan took four wickets at Wankhede Stadium to help Sri Lanka cruise to victory in its final group game there over semifinalist New Zealand. This time, they know the atmosphere will be very different.
So who will it be?
Will Tendulkar get his emotional farewell? Or will Muralitharan take another winner's medal into retirement? Consider this before you cast your vote or lay money with your bookmaker. The Cricket World Cup has never been won by the country hosting the final.
I wonder if anyone's had the nerve to tell Tendulkar.