Lee's battle with Tendulkar can prove decisive

Angus Fraser
Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00

For a neutral it is the World Cup final everyone wanted to see. No two teams come close to presenting the world with such an array of talent as Australia and India, who possess a vast proportion of the leading names in the game. Throughout the 2003 World Cup they have proved themselves to be the two outstanding sides in the competition and, as a reward for this, they deservedly have the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage in cricket at The Wanderers here tomorrow.

In a World Cup of infrequent highs and too many negative distractions it is hoped that this galaxy of stars serve up a final to remember. There should be no shortage of incentives for either side. The financial rewards start with $2m (£1.29m) in prize-money for the winners and one can only imagine what may come the way of the Indian players should they return home as champions.

More importantly, though, this tournament desperately needs such a finale and with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Brett Lee, Sourav Ganguly, Glenn McGrath, Rahul Dravid and Adam Gilchrist on show it has every chance of being a classic.

Unbeaten during the tournament, and on a 16-game winning streak, Australia are very much the favourites. The reigning champions have achieved this record run of victories through playing cricket to a standard others have failed to match. It is no fluke that Ricky Ponting's side are where they are because they combine aggression, pride, discipline and thorough preparation with a high level of skill.

Australia have had their share of problems. Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, two of their leading players, returned home sooner than expected and this makes their feat even more remarkable. The "green and golds" are also likely to be without their batsman Damien Martyn tomorrow following his slow recovery from a a fractured finger.

If there is a side who can upset them, it is India. With one defeat in the World Cup – to Australia – Sourav Ganguly's team have improved as the tournament has progressed. India have always had a plethora of talented players, but at last, under the guidance of Ganguly and his coach, John Wright, they have combined a selfish nature with what it takes to become a team. Their huddle before each game, and at the fall of each wicket, may be gimmicky but it seems to have united their cause.

This contest will revolve around the first 15 overs of each innings, because this is where Australia are at their most dangerous. If India do not strike early then Matthew Hayden and Gilchrist will be out of sight and Ganguly chasing the game before he knows what has hit him.

In McGrath and Lee, Ponting also possesses the ideal opening attack. It perfectly combines pace, control and hostility and on the quick, bouncy pitch, which is expected at The Wanderers, it could expose India's vulnerability against good quick bowling. Their batsmen will need clear minds and sharp reflexes in order to keep out a new white Kookaburra ball.

Coming through this opening spell relatively unscathed is India's biggest challenge. If they manage to achieve this, Ganguly's side then have a very good chance of posting a score that could test the Australians. If they do not, this match could be as one-sided as the encounter at the start of the tournament, when Australia romped home by nine wickets.

In Tendulkar, though, India are fortunate to have the most qualified man in cricket for the job. The little master has been in awesome form throughout the World Cup and there would be a huge hole in his career if he were not to play on the game's biggest stage. And it is Tendulkar's battle with Lee – the outstanding bowler of the tournament – which is the one not to miss. My advice is to get in your seat early because sparks are sure to fly as these two heavyweights attempt to control centre stage.

Tendulkar, however, was trying to play this duel down after India arrived here yesterday. "It is not about Tendulkar and Lee," he said. "It is about India against Australia. There are 22 players out there, I have always said that. Brett Lee is very fast and he is a fine bowler but all I do is try and watch the ball, that is the key. We have won eight games in a row and confidence is high."

It is unlikely that a captain as demanding and passionate as Ganguly will allow his side to become complacent, but there is a fear that India may feel they have reached their goal by getting to the final. This could never be the case for an Australian, though. He would consider anything other than raising the trophy tomorrow as failure and it is hard to see this not taking place.

South Africa's tour of England this summer will go ahead as scheduled. South Africa will play five Test matches against England and also take part in a one-day series together with the hosts and Zimbabwe. Last month South African officials had warned of a boycott by Zimbabwe and South Africa over England's decision not to play the Zimbabweans in the World Cup.

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