Taylor heads for the summit

Cricket World Cup final: Sri Lanka must tame threat of Waugh and master the wiles of Warne to realise their dream; Derek Pringle says the Australians should prevail in a final of high tension
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THIS World Cup may have confounded, infuriated and plain bamboozled players and public alike, but as the trail converges on the Gaddafi Stadium, only one thing is certain: there is a clear favourite and an underdog. What could have been settled in a low-key group game in Colombo, before a terrorist bomb provoked panic and cancellation, now transfers to Lahore for the ultimate prize, and perhaps the ultimate grudge match to attain it.

Both teams remain unbeaten, although unlike Sri Lanka, who have won both their important matches at a canter, the tensions of Australia's last two victories have stiffened the sinews. The Australians are easily the more battle-hardened, though perhaps the more fatigued for it, and are nursing a few wounds.

Against New Zealand, in the quarter-final in Madras, their batting was given its sternest work-out yet. With three centuries in the tournament, Mark Waugh has excelled in his role as an opener, but even his 110 against the Kiwis was special, lacking the usual panic of the run chase, and has so far been the knock of the tournament. Waugh is a superb player of spin and Sri Lanka will want to get him early, although he is troubled by a hamstring injury picked up fielding against the West Indies.

The Aussie bowling, which had been given a roughing up by New Zealand, then chose to show its mettle against a jittery West Indies side who lost a match they had won at least twice: once with the ball until Australia showed their batting depth and nous through Law and Bevan, and then with the bat, until McGrath bottled them up and Warne got his flipper working.

As close and tense as it was on the field, the game was finally decided in the minds of the captains. But whereas Richie Richardson made snap decisions to change tack once Shivnarine Chanderpaul had gone, Mark Taylor, resilient in the face of certain defeat, held firm.His strategy - once his side's total was known - was worked out long in advance, whereasRichardson took a reckless gamble when he promoted his hitters.

In a short space of time Taylor has become the figurehead of Australian cricket, replacing Allan Border's Ayers Rock-like presence with his own subtler form of permanency. Like Michael Atherton his batting form has been sketchy of late, but he has not let it influence his body language with others.

Coming from Wagga Wagga, he has a beguiling country boy honesty about him that marks him as an Australian from the old school: hard-edged without being abrasive, sporting without being too soft. And he wears the mantle of captaincy lightly, more like a velvet cape than a hair shirt.

Taking over a crack team which includes possibly the greatest leg-spinner ever in Shane Warne has helped. But expectations have been just as high as recent standards and success is an impatient mistress. Pressure exists and although it is not of the soul-searching variety Atherton will be experiencing, he may soon find that, unless there are more peaks to climb, the only way is down.

Happily, one such summit presents itself today, though it is doubtful whether Australia could think of a more hostile combination - in view of recent controversies such as the bribery allegations against Pakistan's Salim Malik and the ball tampering and throwing incidents that arose when the Sri Lankans were in Australia - than that of playing Arjuna Ranatunga's men in Pakistan.

Both captains are publicly playing down the ill-feeling between the two sides, with Taylor even going as far to point out that: "The last time we met in Adelaide, we had a perfectly amicable Test match and a few beers." But there is some private seething. Unless tempers are held in check, lip readers will not be required to interpret the little on-pitch asides.

Australia are favourites, as they have been since day one, Ladbrokes quoting them at 4-7 to win today's final. In a two-horse race, there are few bargains - ever since the bookies got burned after England's 500-1 miracle against the Aussies at Headingley in 1981 - and Sri Lanka are 5-4, a remarkable shortening from their longest pre-tournament price of 66-1.

If descending odds obeyed the laws of gravity, then that kind of momentum would prove unstoppable. Unluckily for Sri Lanka's backers, one-day cricket has never obeyed the laws of Newtonian physics and as Taylor said yesterday: "If a side is going to beat us, they are going to have to play really good cricket."

Sri Lanka know this and it just may come to pass that on the lower bouncing pitch at the Gaddafi stadium, their positive hitting can win their tiny island the recognition its talent deserves. With Taylor wanting to bat and Ranatunga probably wanting to chase, there will be no need to toss, unless power cuts are threatened or the Sri Lankan captain becomes mindful of the fact that none of the previous World Cups has been won by the team batting second.

With four left-handers in the top seven, Sri Lanka have as good a weapon as any to reduce Warne's effectiveness in the middle overs which, if it works - as it did when New Zealand's Chris Harris hit him about - will put the other bowlers under pressure. Taylor's juggling of Warne will be as crucial as it was against the West Indies.

Moreover, the boundaries are large and the outfield long, factors which will help Australia, who are far better at taking singles and have the edge in the field. With their game plan more likely to hold up under pressure than Sri Lanka's, everything will have to go right for Ranatunga's men to hoist the trophy. But then, so far, everything has.

Pringle's World Cup XI

Mark Waugh (Australia)

Sanath Jayasuriya (Sri Lanka)

Brian Lara (West Indies)

Sachin Tendulkar (India)

Aravinda de Silva (Sri Lanka)

Steve Waugh (Australia)

Ian Healy (Australia)

Wasim Akram (Pakistan, capt)

Shane Warne (Australia)

Curtly Ambrose (West Indies)

Waqar Younis (Pakistan)