MUMBAI: Armed with the wishes of millions of passionate fans and a never-say-die spirit, India are just one win away from becoming the ODI world champions after almost 28 years as they clash with an equally determined Sri Lanka in the first all-Asian cricket World Cup summit showdown on Saturday.
More than two decades after their incredible World Cup triumph at the historic Lord’s, India find themselves on the threshold of probably their biggest cricketing moment as they brace up for a nerve-wrecking battle for supremacy at the renovated Wankhede stadium.
Both India and Sri Lanka, two Asian giants who have played against each other frequently in recent times, have won the coveted trophy once each and will leave no stone unturned to regain the Cup.
Though there is little to choose between the two teams, India will fancy their chances of putting it across the islanders as they are playing at home and are peaking at the right time after a rather patchy beginning to their campaign.
Both the teams have some injury concerns ahead of the grand finale which will be high on emotions for a variety of reasons and will give one last chance to ageing maestro Sachin Tendulkar to fulfill his dream of winning the World Cup, one silverware that has been missing from his collection.
The match will be the last outing for India’s highly respected coach Gary Kirsten who has transformed the team into world-beaters as also Sri Lanka coach Trevor Bayliss, who is set to resign after the World Cup.
It will also be a swansong match for Muttiah Muralitharan, who is racing against time to recover from a knee injury.
The home team has suffered a jolt ahead of the game with Ashish Nehra, who bowled well in the high-voltage semifinal clash against Pakistan in Mohali, being virtually ruled out because of a finger injury.
Similarly, Sri Lanka have injury concerns over Muralitharan and all-rounder Angelo Matthews and have called in Suraj Randiv and Chaminda Vaas as cover.
The hosts are also grappling with a selection dilemma ahead of the summit showdown which will be watched by millions of fans in both the cricket-crazy nations.
The Indians misread the Mohali track and opted for an additional seamer in Nehra at the expense of spinner Ravichandran Ashwin who did a decent job in the two matches he has played so far.
The Mohali pitch assisted the slow bowlers more though the three Indian pacers — Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and Nehra — bowled well.
The Indians are peaking at the right time having prevailed over defending champions Australia in the quarters and arch-rivals Pakistan in a high-voltage semi-final but it remains to be seen whether they can pull it off when it matters the most.
Captain Dhoni has warned his teammates not to get distracted by the excessive hype surrounding their World Cup campaign and just focus on the job at hand.
"There’ll be plenty of things happening around us, but what’s important is not to get distracted. We all know what our jobs are as professional cricketers so we’ll stick to that and try to play good cricket", Dhoni said.
"The Sri Lankans have a good side and they have done really well in the tournament. We have to play good cricket to beat them. We have to be at our best."
Both the teams appear to be well-balanced on paper though the islanders certainly have a more potent bowling attack, particularly with the presence of spin wizard Muralitharan who will be keen to make an impression in his swansong game.
Muralitharan has been troubled by a knee injury and Randiv has been called in as cover for him, though the team management is confident that he would be fully fit by Saturday.
Although the Indians have a formidable batting line-up and most of them are quite adept in dealing with spin, Muralitharan is a wily customer and will find a way to put pressure on the batsmen if he takes the field on the morrow.
The home team will look to Tendulkar and the flamboyant Virender Sehwag to provide a rollicking start and set the platform for the middle-order to take India to a decent total at the Wankhede stadium track which is expected to suit the batsmen.
Tendulkar has been in good form right through the tournament with 464 runs and his fans will be hoping that he achieves the phenomenal milestone of scoring his 100th international century at his home ground.
Sehwag, who started with a brilliant 175 against Bangladesh, has not really fired after that knock though he has rattled up quick-fire 30s and 40s. India need him to be at his brutal best to take the game away from the Lankans.
India have the depth in their batting but they need to ensure that they don’t collapse in the batting powerplay as they had done against South Africa and the West Indies. They, however, made the powerplay count in the last game against Pakistan.
Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and Raina have enough talent and skill to put runs on the board. Dhoni has been struggling with the bat and will be hoping to make a contribution when it matters most.
Yuvraj, who is having a dream World Cup and has already won a record four man-of-the-match awards, will have a key role to play since he is the player in form both with the bat and ball.
The Sri Lankans, on the other hand, have a settled look to their squad and definitely have the resources to spoil India’s party.
Their top batsmen — Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara, Upul Tharanga and Mahela Jayawardene — have all been among the runs.
"It means a lot to us. This is what we planned for over two years. We missed a great opportunity in 2007 when we reached the finals and again we’ve got a great opportunity tomorrow," Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara said.
"We will be preparing for the finals. We don’t have to get carried away. We are in the finals and that’s great and we need to keep our heads down and keep in mind that there’s a lot of work left to be done. Its the biggest day of our lives", he said.
The eventual winners of the flagship event of the game would be richer by USD three million, while the runners-up would take home $1.5 million out of the total prize pool of $12.52 million.
Sri Lanka have played four one-dayers at this venue, including a league match in this tournament against New Zealand. Out of those four, they have won two and lost two.
Sri Lanka had been beaten by India and defeated them once each in their first two encounters at the ground in 1986-87 and 1996-97.
In two other non-India games, the Lankans were beaten by the West Indies in 1993, while they defeated New Zealand earlier this month.(PTI)