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Men and supermen

Sri Lanka’s free spirits take on the mighty men from Australia in an intriguing summit clash, writes Atreyo Mukhopadhyay.

cricket Updated: Apr 28, 2007 03:38 IST

The wait is about to be over. Saturday will bring an end to a long and tedious World Cup, and also decide whether it will be Australia who notch up a historic hat-trick, or Sri Lanka who stop them yet again, after 1996.

Considering recent form, ammunition and momentum, there is nothing to dispute that the men from Down Under are the favourites. They have decimated every team so far and almost all of their 10 victories have been hopelessly one-sided, just as it was four years ago in South Africa.

Add the fact that they have bowled out practically every opposition, with some of their batsmen yet to bat properly, Australia are a cut above the rest, maybe much more. It will take a monumental effort from Sri Lanka to cause an upset, but they must be looking at the other sides of it as well.

It is a World Cup final, where the story does not necessarily follow the script. Things like history, track record and reputation can all wait or be forgotten, because it ultimately boils down to how one performs on a particular day. This is a game pitting 11 against 11, and collective performance will matter the most, a few exceptional individuals notwithstanding.

Methodical in approach, keeping nerves under control and executing the plan can make a lot of difference, but having Australia on the other side still makes the task difficult. They start firing from the start when it comes to batting, keep pressing the accelerator in the middle overs and tend to rocket beyond control towards the end.

In bowling, they offer a mixed bag of accuracy, control, pace and also some well-thought slow stuff to tie down the opponent, backing it all up with superb fielding.

The unwavering focus and intensity they have shown in every department, even while coming off a series of defeats just before the event, makes them virtual winners. The word to remember is 'virtual'. It is not over until it is over, and the final has not even begun.

For Sri Lanka, that must be the most encouraging point, apart from their own strengths. As South Africa captain Graeme Smith pointed out after being thrashed in the semifinals, Sri Lanka too possess an admirable variety in attack. Muttiah Muralitharan is always a threat, and this time, he has support from the faster bowlers. But, as Smith also said, depth in batting is what gives Australia the edge in the final.

Even when they lost to New Zealand before the World Cup, they had amassed over 300 in successive matches, and they have carried on that form to the Caribbean. It has been so good that some of their better players are yet to get a proper run, and the law of averages seems to be their strongest enemy, at least on paper.

Sri Lanka's best chance lies in their ability to offer something different. In all likelihood, they will not try to overpower Australia; instead, they will look to undo them by outwitting them. South Africa opted for physical confrontation, only to be knocked down early, and that is a lesson.

It is not prudent to take them head-on. Sri Lanka are calm and cunning and these were the key factors behind their success in 1996. Years later, they seem to be their best options again.