The Way Forward
The manner in which cricket is being played is at a significant inflection point. On one hand you have the absolute aggression from the Australian team and on the other you have the artistic flair of the Sri Lankans.
Among the four semifinalists, Sri Lanka is the only team that is unique. South Africa tried to imitate Australia so much so that they fell flat on their faces still not sure about who they are nor who they want to be. New Zealand made a genuine attempt at being like Australia but lacked the required match winners in the mould of a Martin Crowe or a Chris Cairns. Only Sri Lanka hasn’t tried to be like Australia, their captain Mahela Jayawardene is the epitome of the Zen like quality and quite self belief with which they play their cricket. He played the finest innings yet in this World Cup in the semifinals against New Zealand, gradually playing himself in before caressing and finessing the ball to all parts of the ground in a beautiful crescendo of the finest strokes touched by surreal timing.
Australia play a brand of power cricket that is domineering and many other countries have fallen into the trap of trying to play like the Aussies without realizing that Australia have chosen this method only after being the number one cricketing power for a long time. Australia didn’t always play like this, in the 1999 World Cup they had to battle hard after early losses and were lucky to get past South Africa. It was Steve Waugh who pioneered this approach in Test cricket and Ricky Ponting carried it onto the one day games. Ponting is now the primary enforcer of this approach in both forms of the game and the team appears to have absorbed his personality. But, even they have tripped up with this 'all guns blazing' approach, remember the Adelaide Test match against India when they had the first innings lead till the fourth day and yet lost the Test match. In their unbeaten run in the 2003 World Cup if not Andrew Symonds’ spectacular innings against Pakistan it could have been a very different tournament. In this World Cup they haven’t even been challenged in any of their games, and Sri Lanka may be the only team who can. I actually think it was a pretty good strategy to hide Murali and Malinga from the Australian batters and it looks like it might pay dividends because the Aussies seem pretty worked up about it. I find it pretty hypocritical of the Aussies to quibble about Sri Lanka resting its players and to comment about how 'that is not they way we play our cricket.' In the 1996 World Cup they didn’t even bother showing up for their games in Sri Lanka. Lest I forget, let me quickly add that the boycott was out of concerns about safety!
Sanath Jayasuriya is probably the only Sri Lankan player who approaches the game in the Aussie way but he is a man all unto himself. The one area in which there are similarities between the two sides is the fielding. Sri Lanka is one of the superior fielding sides in the world, and this side is a far cry from the round belly days of Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva. Tillekeratne Dilshan is breathtaking in the field and will match the intensity of the Aussies. The Australian bowling attack led by the peerless Glenn McGrath has taken the most wickets in the tournament, but Sri Lanka does possess two of the most exotic and talented bowlers in the history of cricket in Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga. If at all you are thinking twice about watching the final, then watch it just for these two, they are a sight to behold.
The style in which three of the semifinalists play their cricket seems to be an indication of which brand of cricket will prevail, but for this one last game, the 2007 World Cup Final, we have the artistry of the Lankans versus the aggression of the Aussies and the sheer genius of the artist may yet delay the inevitable.