Dominic Cork: Two greats, one thrilling finale – but will it be the quiet man or the joker who carries the day?

Outside Off Stump
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The World Cup has been blessed with the final most people wanted. But perhaps even more mouth-watering than the match itself is the fact the stage is perfectly set for two of the game's all-time greats, Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan.

For Tendulkar, what could be better than scoring his 100th international century in his home city while helping India to become the first country to win the World Cup on their own soil? And for Muralitharan, what more could he ask than to end a phenomenal international career with a man-of-the-match-winning performance during a Sri Lankan victory march?

They cannot both enjoy the stuff of dreams today, of course, but it would surprise nobody if one of them precisely followed a fairy-tale script.

Tendulkar's hunger for runs, and appetite for hard work, shows no sign of diminishing so he could go on for a few more years yet. But if he stopped playing tonight then he would be saluted as a wonderful servant to not just Indian cricket but the game worldwide.

"The Little Master" is a perfect nickname for Tendulkar. But despite all his success, he still works as hard as anyone on his game, clearly loves practising and even now refuses to rely solely on his enormous talent but actually wants to keep on improving. With ability like he has and an outlook like that it is no wonder he has become one of cricket's greatest legends.

You could not find a better role model for young batsmen – and when it comes to crafting an innings, in all sorts of different conditions, he is wonderful to watch.

What Tendulkar has been able to do is change his game plan to suit whatever type of wicket confronts him. I saw that close up in 1996 when India toured England. Yes, we managed to get him out a few times but what he did really well, in difficult conditions for batting with the ball swinging and seaming, was to play late – to wait for the ball that little bit longer.

And then in India, of course, he is much more the aggressor – ready to attack earlier and dominate from the start.

But wherever Tendulkar has played, the statistics stack up for him. And added to that wonderful technique is a rock-solid temperament. There are certain batsmen who, as a bowler, you quickly realise are not going to be worried by a bit of sledging.

Generally, no matter how big a reputation a player had I liked to have a word, but you soon accepted that Tendulkar was the sort of character who, if anything, would be inspired to do even better by people trying to wind him up.

You should never be in awe of an opponent and should always believe you can get him out. But when someone like Tendulkar plays a wonderful shot against you then, because of his enormous talent, you cannot help in some way to feel ever so slightly privileged! Generally, though, you want to watch him playing his good shots against other opponents, and not too many against you and your mates.

In many ways, Murali is the complete opposite to Tendulkar. Whereas the master batsman is quiet and reserved, the record-breaking bowler is a joker – almost always smiling, someone who never shuts up and a person who wants to be involved in every conversation and every part of the game. I think the world of him.

Like Tendulkar, though, Murali is a genius and he's up there at the top of the tree with Shane Warne when it comes to great spinners.

I first saw Murali in 1996 and I freely admit that when I batted against him in the 1998 Test at The Oval – where he finished with 16 wickets – I did not have a clue which way the ball was going to turn. He bamboozled us all, although in our defence I should say we did not have the video aids and spin-bowling machines which current players are able to call on to help them pick mystery spinners.

But Murali is still getting plenty of wickets these days, so while it is one thing being able to pick him it is another actually to play him effectively.

The other thing I should say is that it was obvious from the outset that Murali had a unique action. But that is all I thought it was: unique. Not illegal. Others have thought differently, of course, and he has had plenty to contend with throughout his career, but I believe in a lot of cases people were just jealous of his success.

Tournament a fillip for 50-over format

India have home advantage today but I make Sri Lanka the slight favourites because they seem to have all bases covered with their team. But whatever the result, this World Cup has been a good advert for 50-over cricket at a time when the format is under threat. It will be interesting to see what the game's decision-makers have to say next.