Friday, April 1, 2011

Fitting Finale: Sachin Tendulkar vs Muttiah Muralitharan

MUMBAI: It may not provide the pure thrill of an India-Australia encounter; it may not offer the political drama of an India-Pakistan clash either. Yet, this India-Sri Lanka final has something that makes it even more engrossing. 
A straight contest between the world's best batsman and best bowler of all time: Sachin Tendulkar versus Muttiah Muralitharan. 18,093 runs against 534 wickets. (And we are only talking one-dayers here.) A maestro and a magician on the game's biggest stage. 

Add the cauldron-like atmosphere at the Wankhede Stadium, and it promises to be a match for the gods, a battle for eternity. There's been some concern whether Murali's aching hamstring and dodgy knee will allow him to play but given the stage and the occasion, it's safe to bet that if he can walk, he'll be out there wheeling away. 

There is also a twist to the contest that makes it even more gut-wrenching: it is the last World Cupfor both. Only one of them will be going home with the trophy; the other will go away with a heavy heart and a strange feeling of emptiness. 

Sure, it may not hurt Murali as much as it will Sachin: he has, after all, already been part of one Cup-winning side. He has also often shown the ability to take triumphs and tribulations alike in his stride. The tsunami and accompanying devastation back home has clearly helped him see life's bigger picture. 

Sachin has probably not reached that stage yet: winning the World Cup has been a lifelong dream for him. He wants it desperately because that's the only thing missing from his array of exploits. If the hundredth ton comes along with it, it would be a fitting last chapter, to at least his one-day career. 

"It's the most important tournament in my life," he had said just before the tricky quarterfinal against Australia; they were the magic words that made his mates in the team wake up to the possibility of a day without him. Since then, Team India has been a transformed side. 

Murali does not believe in such hyperbole: he makes his own destiny. More importantly, he makes his mates do the 'dirty work' by unleashing his charm offensive in the dressing room. "We will really miss him," said vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene. "He keeps us laughing all the time. 

That itself is amazing if you consider his long and tumultuous journey, from a maverick spinner who had to bowl outside the leg-stump simply to stop Tendulkar once, to the world's greatest. He has been in the midst of many storms, and been the cause of quite a few too, only to emerge with a smile. 

It may just be a joke but Murali apparently believes he is a better bat than Sachin. That is what makes this last battle so delightful while being intriguing too. In the 46 times that they have crossed paths, however, Murali has got him only five times; Sachin has managed 8 hundreds and 12 fifties. 

The numbers are evidently in favour of Sachin. Murali, however, will be backing himself this time, even though his body is battered; after all, Sachin did go through a nightmare against the two Pakistani off-spinners in the semifinal. 

Murali has much more variety, much more control and much more guile. He will lure Sachin with his flight; he will trick him with his turn and he will try to mesmerize him with his big, big eyes. If nothing works he will ambush him with his doosras. 

Sachin, though, will be unperturbed for the most part; if the ball doesn't stop or grip as it did in Mohali, he won't even worry. He will use his feet, soft hands and firm pushes to counter the magic. If the ball comes on nicely to the bat, it will transcend into a battle in the minds. One legend against another.

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