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LAHORE, March 16 - The two best fighting teams of the 6th Wills World Cup who recently became bitter rivals, 1987 champions Australia and 'dark horses' Sri Lanka, are here to settle old scores and the place is none better than the picturesque 55,000-capacity Qadhafi Stadium.
With both teams showing potential of rising from the brink to glorious heights, Sunday's match becomes a dream game. So, despite not having Pakistan in the grand finale, there are few regrets because Pakistan would have probably not recovered from a disastrous start to post 251 nor would they have managed to successfully defend a modest 207 like Australia did against the two-time champions.
The cup final also assumes added significance because of Australia's refusal to play Sri Lanka in Colombo and then skipper Mark Taylor's remarks of prospects of Sri Lanka making it to the final: "That was unheard of eight years ago. They were the ones you walked up to and got your two points against."
To an extent, that was right. Sri Lanka had lost 16 of their previous 20 games in the World Cups. But this time, it's a different case altogether.
Although the Sri Lankan management, wisely so, have stated that they would play the final as another game, coach Dave Whatmore couldn't hide his bitterness when said: "There would be no hard feelings - but we have not forgotten the past."
Whatmore, it may be added, has played seven Tests for Australia though he was born in Sri Lanka.
Arjuna Ranatunga, the burly tactician who took the world by storm by pairing little dynamite Romesh Kaluwitharana with swashbuckling Sanath Jayasuriya, is the most comfortable man. "You (Australians) cannot escape from us, Mark Taylor, we are coming for you," he had said a week before. On Friday, he said: "We are happy to be facing Australia at last."
So few old grievances are likely to be buried on Sunday despite all efforts from the respective managements. And why should they be buried. Australians didn't do any good to the Sri Lankans in the last series in Australia.
The Sri Lankans were first accused of ball tampering, the allegations later dismissed by the International Cricket Council. The local umpires and especially Darrel Hair then called off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing despite seeing him at Sharjah only a couple of months ago and never calling him then.
If anything was left to further dent the relations between the two boards and the governments, it was done when Australia refused to travel to Sri Lanka. Not only did they back out because of security reasons, they also convinced the West Indies to stay away who once again showed slave mentality only to be rewarded a quarter-final berth at Jaipur when Australia lost by four wickets to them under debatable circumstances.
Therefore, when Sri Lanka and Australia take the field at 2.30 p.m., they will be aiming for a double glory, if not the Australians, the Sri Lankans definitely. And one thing is for sure, none of the 22 players will have a good sleep.
Reverting to Sunday's clash, it will not be Sanath Jayasuriya vs Mark Waugh or Aravinda de Silva vs Steve Waugh or Chaminda Vaas vs Glenn McGrath or Arjuna Ranatunga vs Mark Taylor or Muttiah Muralitharan vs Shane Warne. It is team game and only a collective effort will help the side reach the pinnacle. Yes, one of these players will certainly dominate the proceedings and will later win the Man-of-the-Final award.
Sanath Jayasuriya, who was honoured as the most valuable player of the tournament, had overshadowed his other stroke-makers till the quarter-finals with his lusty hitting. But when Sri Lanka were shattered to 1 for 2 and then 35 for 3, the middle-order spearheaded by Aravinda de Silva showed what they were capable of.
Aravinda's breath-taking 66 against India with 14 boundaries and equally useful knocks by Roshan Mahanama (58 retired hurt), Arjuna Ranatunga (35) and Hashan Tillekeratne (32) speaks volumes about the depth in the batting which is dependable and has the potential of even accelerating the proceedings besides repairing the initial damage.
But one still thinks an explosive start by Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana would be the ideal launching pad for the Sri Lankans for a good and respectable scores. One must say here that most of the games in this tournament have been played on wickets tailor-made for the batsmen and in some matches, a score of 260 odd has not turned out to be a safe one.
Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana's role on Sunday will be the most important ever and it will be a chance for them to become idols back home. They are talented enough and the Australian bowling has shown vulnerability in the absence of Craig McDermott. The score of 286 by New Zealand in the quarter-final is a case in point.
The Sri Lankan team management will have to play a decisive role. They need to brief the openers continuously and drill it into their minds that they are not supposed to do anything silly. Of course, when one goes after the bowling, there is an equal chance of losing wickets, but Kaluwitharana's shots in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals might not have been pardoned, had the team lost.
In the five matches that Sri Lanka have played, the specialist bowlers have got little opportunity to show their class. On Sunday, they will need to rise to the occasion, bowling a good line and length with a prudent field setting.
The Sri Lankan fielding has so far been outstanding. They have plucked catches from the sky and even a half chance has been converted.
But, what happened in the past five matches is history now. Any mistake on Sunday could be very costly. If Sri Lanka have a chance to win the World Cup, it is now. The entire Pakistan nation is praying for them and the situation here is that like Pakistan is playing against Australia. Pakistanis will be out there to cheer them and Ranatunga knows it. "I know that Pakistan crowd will be behind us and it is going to be a great boost for us. The team is feeling at home," he said.
This feeling at home is always great and a psychological advantage. If someone challenges these views, he should talk with Imran Khan whose Pakistan lifted the crystal ball trophy before a 88,000 supporting Melbourne crowd on March 25, 1992. That is besides the point if Imran did not appreciate the crowd as he was busy talking about his cancer hospital.
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