Colombo: When Sachin Tendulkar played in his first World Cup final, a packed Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg and India had sought a special innings from India’s modern batting genius.
Memories of how earlier in that 2003 tournament, against Pakistan at a Centurion venue overflowing with Asian spice, he had displayed the sort of technical skill for which he is so often celebrated. As in Mohali, he was also fortunate. Pakistani fieldsmen dropped him twice.
It seems to be a harbinger with Pakistan when he is batting for he has never played in a losing World Cup side against the old rivals; a bete noir, as it were, to describe how he manages to ease his way through the Pakistan bowlers and fieldsmen and steer India to success.
In the final at The Wanderers in 2003, as Bollywood royalty and India's assembled elite travelled the Indian Ocean to cheer their side, they were all stunned into silence. A top-edge off Glenn McGrath in the fifth ball of the first over and India's challenge was all but over.
Muttiah Muralitharan has already played a role in two finals for Sri Lanka and is perhaps more stage savvy than is the Mumbai Magician; although having tasted the drama that befits a World Cup final, Tendulkar is unlikely to allow such memories as The Wanderers in 2003 or the imperfections of the Mohali innings disturb his psyche.
India have a trophy to win, just as do Sri Lanka. It is here, where the challenge between two such thespians on this World Cup stage becomes a battle within what is the wider confrontation. Both will hone their skills to test the other in a larger guessing game: one the off-spinner is going to attempt a trap and destroy manoeuvre to outwit the cunning of the runmaking skills of Tendulkar.
Of the two, it is hard to separate their CWC final contributions. Murali has figures of 17-0-75-1 in his two bowling spells in the 1996 and 2007 finals. Tendulkar's one performance was a four, cracked off McGrath in the first fateful over of 2003.
Who could but fail to remember Tendulkar's innings of 65 at Eden Gardens in 1996 when the game was abandoned because of the incendiary behaviour of the Kolkata spectators. Getting a glass bottle full of water in the middle of the back as we left the media box when security under advisement ushered us out of the venue, was one scary memory of that game. It left a bruise for months. Fortunately, no cracked vertebrae resulted from the incident.
Tendulkar handled Murali pretty well in that innings as first Navoj Sidhu fell to a Vaas delivery. It was Sanath Jayasuriya who dismissed Tendulkar that day. It was a nifty piece of stumping as well by Romesh Kaluwitharana. Both made up for their early dismissals by Javagal Srinath as the top-order imploded and Aravinda de Silva had to launch a rescue act while experiencing tummy troubles.
Earlier in that tournament, Sachin was run out when 137 at Kotla in a game where Murali struggled – giving away 42 runs in his 10 overs without a wicket. He was brought into the attack at three and in a match where it was the flashing willow broadsword of Jayasuriya, the Matara Mauler, who demolished the Indian bowling.
It was the death of Tendulkar's father that forced him to miss the 1999 World Cup game at Taunton's picturesque venue, and where Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly pummelled Sri Lanka's bowling into submission with big centuries and Murali was wicketless in his 10 overs, travelling for 60 runs in a desperate losing cause.
March 10, 2003 and in the Super Six game at The Wanderers, it was Tendulkar who wreaked havoc on the Sri Lanka bowling with a sublime innings of 97 – as with Pakistan earlier, so close to the three-figure mark – as India scored 292 and Sri Lanka succumbed to better bowling to be dismissed for 109. It was scorched earth policy and a heavy defeat. It wasn't Murali who earned his Sri Lanka teammates plaudits for taking Tendulkar's wicket – it went to Aravinda de Silva.
Murali did collect three wickets for 46, by then though India had left their neighbours wondering how to combat the Indian juggernaut. Including Murali, they had no answer to twinkle toes Tendulkar.
As the failure of the 2007 CWC expedition to the Caribbean has been well documented, the passing note is how in Sri Lanka's game against India, Tendulkar failed to score – a rare blimp on the screen – yet it wasn't Murali who took the wicket; it was Dilhara Fernando at Queen's Park in Port of Spain: five minutes spent over facing three balls.
On this occasion, Murali's three wickets for a cost of 41 were Virender Sehwag, Mahindra Singh Dhoni (for a duck) and Zaheer Khan.
All of which makes Saturday's clash of two modern cricket Titans in this year's World Cup final that little more special. It is Murali's last appearance as an international player. Because of his age and 2015 Australia and New Zealand are four years away, it is unlikely that Tendulkar will be eager, unless he feels up to the challenge, to play another World Cup.
Retirement comes to all players; to all those in the work place. What better way to end a career than being in a side that has come through so much to reach a World Cup final, overcoming tribulations, trials and criticism to reach a pinnacle moment in a career that has brought pleasure to millions as well as entertain those across the globe.
So, when Tendulkar does face up to Muralitharan one last time, remember they are two warriors who will sign off their World Cup careers with the hopes of many, leaving a legacy that is a path for the future of other heroes to cheer and applaud.
Yet, in the dust of time, cricket had two such men who thrilled millions, and in a moment, will be gone into the pages of history for others to read about and wonder.
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