Sri Lanka ready to spoil India’s World Cup party
When the 10th World Cup Final was on the drawing board this is how it looked. In one corner were sketched India, cricket crazy hosts, their team worshipped by millions upon millions.
The inhabitants of the other corner were less clearly prescribed, although Sri Lanka, fellow hosts, a tiny nation by comparison but with the romance that brings, were always viable contenders.
That confrontation in turn brought something else, something that could not be bought, though there are people who might be prepared to try.
It brought Sachin Tendulkar, the world's most celebrated cricketer and the leading run scorer of all time in the international game, and Muttiah Muralitharan, the most singular bowler on the planet and the highest Test and one-day wicket-taker there has ever been.
And so, almost, it has come to pass. Today, Tendulkar and Muralitharan, champions of the highest order, will be the focus of attention in the match at the Wankhede Stadium.
Not quite the sole focus because there are enough formidable cricketers around to ensure that scorers never sleep, but this tie somehow represents the climax of all that they have achieved in the game.
For Tendulkar the occasion could hardly be more resonant. In the sparkling autumn of his career, which he might never have reached when chronic injury took its grievous hold five years ago, he is playing what will probably be his 45th and last World Cup match. It is his 453rd ODI of all.
The match is in his home town of Mumbai on the ground where he was once a ball boy in a World Cup semi-final. He stands on 99 international hundreds, 30 ahead of the next man, Ricky Ponting. If there has been a stage more set it can only have involved Olivier at the National.
There is, tantalisingly, a slight doubt about Muralitharan's role. He is suffering from acute pain in a hamstring, although the heavy implication yesterday was that only amputation might prevent his name going on the team sheet.
This is Murali's swan song. He will be 39 in a fortnight and he has understandably decided that his body can no longer take the strain.
He is the sole survivor from Sri
Lanka's magnificently unexpected victory in the 1996 World Cup. No bowler has taken more wickets than Murali, with his highly personalised version of off-spin, and if he can, for the sixth time, add Tendulkar to the 1,334 he already has, then his legend will be burnished forever.
Of the 33,000 seats available for the final, only 4,000 have been made available for public sale. The rest have been allocated to clubs and associations, provoking an unhealthy black market in which tickets with a face value of 15,000 rupees (£210) are being touted at 100,000 rupees (£1,400).
Security is on the highest of alerts. The ground, barely a mile away from the scene of the terrorist attacks in which 166 people were killed in late 2008, is doubling as a fortress.
A no-fly zone has been declared over it and hundreds of troops and policemen are on constant patrol.
Both teams have been affected by late injuries. India's seam bowler Ashish Nehra has broken a finger and will not play.
Sri Lanka asked for a late replacement, the off spinner Suraj Randiv, after they were forced to withdraw the all-rounder Angelo Mathews from the tournament with a thigh strain.
But two men above all will command attention today.
Of Tendulkar, India's captain MS Dhoni, said: “He has a love and passion for cricket that keeps allowing him to rise to the big occasion.
“Every time he turns up on the field whether it is for a practice session or a game he is 100 per cent there and ready to give his all. It is never a case that he walks on to a cricket field just for the sake of it, or that he would rather be back at the hotel.
“He is an amazing person to have in the team and his attitude has not changed at all in the last 21 years. Most people would have lost interest in the game by now,
but not Sachin and I think that God just made him to play cricket. He's been doing it for the past two decades and I'm sure he will be doing it for a few years to come.”
Murali is a different, less diffident character but his captain Kumar Sangakkara was equally laudatory.
“Everyone understands in our dressing room that it is hard to shut Murali up, whatever his mood is,” he said. “He's pretty upbeat, he's always talking, laughing and annoying most of the other players in the dressing room.
“It is great to have him in the side, great to hopefully have him play this World Cup final with us. Whatever happens, we want to play for him and play for each other and do the best we can do.
“It means everything. Hopefully we can take home a World Cup.”
He might just get his wish and spoil the biggest street party on earth.