After six weeks of tournament play, only one match remains at the 2011 Cricket World Cup. A classic Bollywood ending will have Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 100th century in front of his hometown fans in Mumbai to take India to the title. On the opposite side, Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan is looking to pen his own fairy-tale finish with another World Cup win in his final match before retiring. Peter Della Penna says Sri Lanka is well-suited to spoil the party in Mumbai, while Amar Shah writes why destiny favors India.
Why India will win
Cue the A.R. Rahman soundtrack, add in a Javed Akhtar script and throw in any of the three Khans (Shahrukh, Amir or Salman) in front of the camera. Still won't matter. Not even the brightest imaginations and talent of Bollywood can conjure up the filmi storyline in store Saturday as India and Sri Lanka face off in the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup.
The 14-year-old prodigy, who was chosen as a ballboy during the 1987 World Cup on his home ground of Wankhede Stadium, will return more than twenty years later as the greatest of his generation with the chance to win the only prize that has eluded him in his marvelous career.
Sachin Tendulkar is as synonymous with Mumbai as Eminem is to Detroit. Marine Drive is his Eight Mile. Now, with one shot, one opportunity left, he will lead India to its first World Cup in 28 years. And a population of more than billion will lose itself.
It's not that Sri Lanka isn't good. Actually, it's the most balanced, talented and toughest squad in the World Cup so far, but the momentum India has built, with gritty and heart-wrenching wins over Australia and Pakistan, will boost it emotionally instead of draining it physically.
Sri Lankans possess the 3M: Malinga, Mendis and Muralitharan, a blistering bowling attack that has tallied 33 wickets so far. But the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan, with his devastating doosra that would make Mariano Rivera's cutter blush, is battling injury and age. He's 38 and is retiring after the match. He's not the only one hurting. All-rounder Angelo Matthews has been ruled out, leaving the team with a gaping hole in the middle of its lineup.
India will look to exploit. After its subpar batting performance against Pakistan, look for opening batsmen Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar to pummel Sri Lanka's bowlers in the first few overs. For years, they've had a partnership like Malone and Stockton. Now comes the time to upgrade that comparison to Jordan and Pippen.
The strength of India, according to experts, lies in its batting lineup, but it's been all the other intangibles that have helped push it over the hump. Key bowling by Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, outstanding fielding by Suresh Raina and gutsy decision-making by captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni give India the moxie and strut it needs to finish the job. Its road to the finals has seasoned it for a fight, while the Sri Lankans have coasted through. Like their bluegrass brethren from the University of Kentucky, the Indian team bleeds blue.
India has also won 14 of its past 16 one-day international matches against Sri Lanka in India.
But this matchup will come down to Tendulkar. He has the chance for a Chamberlain Franklin, his 100th century on the biggest stage in the sport. He's won everything but the World Cup, getting as close as the final in 2003. There's a reason tickets are selling for as much as $10,000 in the Maximum City. It's apropos that most of Bollywood will be attending. For they will come to watch the greatest artist on the grandest stage in his final act. It will be a performance of a lifetime.
Why Sri Lanka will win
At the start of the World Cup, I wrote that Sri Lanka had the right mix of players to win it all. Saturday's final in Mumbai is the time to show it once and for all. India may be the oddsmaker's favorite in this match, but that is due largely to the fact that it is hosting the final. Otherwise, Sri Lanka has been the sharper team throughout the tournament.
On the bowling front, it has a distinct advantage. Whether it's taking the new ball or coming back in the death overs, Lasith Malinga is a handful to deal with. In the semifinals, Wahab Riaz became the fourth-pace bowler this World Cup to take five wickets in a match against India. Malinga is in line to become the fifth. A gimpy Muttiah Muralitharan is still better than any of India's spinners and he has a solid supporting cast in Ajantha Mendis, Rangana Herath and Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Speaking of Dilshan, Sri Lanka's batting lineup is more than capable of matching up with India's dynamos. In fact, it is Dilshan who is the leading scorer in this World Cup, not Sachin Tendulkar. It is Sri Lanka that has three players -- Dilshan, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara -- in the top five of the run charts, not India. Sangakkara's smooth, graceful batting is akin to Joe Mauer's. There are two special wicketkeeper-captains in this game, but Sangakkara's cool head and red-hot bat will have a greater impact for his team.
Sri Lanka is also the better overall fielding side. The old adage that "defense wins championships" morphs into "catches win matches" for cricket. Pakistan failed miserably in this area of the game against India. Don't expect the same errors to be repeated by the Sri Lankans.
In the 1996 World Cup, India wilted under the pressure of playing a home semifinal against Sri Lanka in Kolkata. Sri Lanka also knocked India out of the 2007 World Cup. After two emotionally draining encounters with Australia and Pakistan, it's time for India to crack against Sri Lanka in 2011.
-- Della Penna
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and -raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and the Wisden Cricketers Almanack.
Amar Shah is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. He's currently developing a romantic-comedy screenplay set in the world of cricket. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter.