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Friday, April 1, 2011

Perfect place for Sachin Tendulkar to reach ton

THE dream scenario has Sachin Tendulkar at the crease on 94, Muttiah Muralidaran bowling his 63,144th and final ball of international cricket for Sri Lanka and India, nine wickets down, needing six to win the World Cup.

That would be a very bad time to get a sales call, although one suspects that there will be few people working in the call centres of Bangalore tomorrow.

If India's semi-final against Pakistan early yesterday was the most-watched one-day international in history, the final will set a new standard.

The finalists have a lot in common, apart from being only the second and third hosts of a World Cup to reach the deciding match, after England in 1979. Fifteen years ago, Sri Lanka won the World Cup with an opening pair that burnt brightly but very briefly. Sanath Jayasuriya had a strike-rate of 130 runs per 100 balls, but was only its fourth- highest run-scorer, while the memory of Romesh Kaluwitharana as a glorious pinch-hitter masks that he made only 73 runs in six innings, albeit off 52 balls.

Sri Lanka's openers in this tournament have the fireworks, but they also have staying power. Tillekeratne Dilshan is the competition's leading run-scorer with 467 at a strike-rate of 93 that seems impossibly pedestrian compared with Jayasuriya.

Upul Tharanga has 393 runs to his credit and, like Dilshan, two centuries. They have compiled two opening partnerships worth more than 200 and have struck 116 boundaries.

India's openers have been similarly effective, although they have taken it in turns to fire, with an average stand of 61 to the Sri Lankans' 112. Virender Sehwag, who began the tournament with 175 against Bangladesh, has made 380 runs off 308 balls, while Tendulkar has 464 runs at a strike-rate of 91.

Among them have been two hundreds, taking the "Little Master" to 99 in his international career.

He has now had three chances to set a landmark that may never be broken and the disappointment, despite him making two match-winning fifties in that time, is palpable. It brings to mind the headlines from 1925 of "Hobbs fails again" when Jack Hobbs was stuck on the same number of first-class hundreds as W.G. Grace for six matches.

What better stage, though, to make his 100th hundred than in a World Cup final in his home city of Mumbai?

Pakistan tried to help Tendulkar to his century on Wednesday, spilling four chances, but Shahid Afridi ended his innings with a fine catch when on 85.

Sri Lanka has its own long-serving hero who seeks a last hurrah, even if Muralidaran has to come out on crutches. The off-spinner, who will be 39 this month, has been struggling with knee and hamstring injuries, and has taken 15 wickets.

The limbs may be creaking, but Murali's eyes still flash and magic still comes from his fingers. The stage is set for a fairytale finale. Who will take the central role?

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