x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A fitting climax to a special cricket World Cup final

Conventional wisdom suggested that this was Sri Lanka's World Cup once they posted 274 — but no-one told MS Dhoni the script.

Tillakaratne Dilshan of Sri Lanka dives to take a catch off his own bowling to dismiss Virat Kohli of India.
Tillakaratne Dilshan of Sri Lanka dives to take a catch off his own bowling to dismiss Virat Kohli of India.

Conventional wisdom suggested that this was Sri Lanka's World Cup once they posted 274. No team had successfully chased more than 225 under lights at Wankhede Stadium and there were many glum faces before India came out to bat.

Fortunately for them, they have a captain who thinks history is irrelevant, who does not particularly care for records. Thanks to MS Dhoni's power-packed 91 and a superb anchoring 97 from Gautam Gambhir, the biggest prize in the game was clinched last night with 10 balls to spare.

Sri Lanka will look back on the injury to Angelo Mathews that deprived them of their premier allround option. Tishara Perera did his bit with the bat, smashing 22 from nine balls, but was not quite up to the task with the ball.

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A rush of blood from Gambhir gave him a wicket, but he did not otherwise look anything more than a mediocre foil for the effervescent Lasith Malinga.

The same went for Nuwan Kulasekara. On seam-friendly pitches, he can be a factor. But on placid surfaces, his lack of pace makes him vulnerable to attack from quality batsmen. The Indians picked him off at will and Kumar Sangakkara was left to rely on Malinga and the great Muttiah Muralitharan for breakthroughs.

Kulasekara's woes were compounded by a missed opportunity that transformed the game. The scoreboard had 68-2 and Gambhir was on 30 when he miscued an inside-out loft against Suraj Randiv.

Kulasekara was slow to move in from long-off and the ball slipped out of his outstretched fingers.

Games turn on such moments, and Sri Lanka wasted another chance as soon as Murali came on to bowl with the score 96-2.

Gambhir, on 47, cut his second ball to deep backward point and risked a second. The throw in was an accurate one, but Sangakkara could neither hold on nor deflect the ball on to the stumps.

Those lapses were especially costly because Gambhir, who scored 75 in the World Twenty20 win of 2007, and Virat Kohli added 83 in even time to resurrect the chase after the demoralising departures of Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar.

Then came another of the moments. Kohli was brilliant caught by Tillakaratne Dilshan off his own bowling, and as most looked for Yuvraj Singh to stride out in his place, Dhoni emerged from the pavilion. His previous highest score in the World Cup was 34 against Ireland.

But after a nervy start - a Dilshan delivery zipped past the outside edge - he settled down to play the sort of innings he was known for when he came into the side.

Errors in length were met with whiplash drives and cuts, and he and Gambhir scampered singles and twos so comfortably that the run-rate was never a factor. Like Adam Gilchrist's 149 for Australia in the 2007 final, Dhoni had saved his best for when it mattered most.

Mahela Jayawardene did that, too, but now has to deal with the dubious distinction of being the first man to score a century in a World Cup final and finish on the losing side. It was a magical innings, too, full of deft touches, placement and wondrous timing. In combination with Thilan Samaraweera, Kulasekara and Perera, he pushed Sri Lanka towards a total that did not seem possible after a sedate start.

In retrospect, Sangakkara and his team might rue their inability to take advantage of the first two power plays. Upul Tharanga never got started and Dilshan was never allowed to run amok as Zaheer Khan - carted for 15 in the first over of the 2003 final - bowled three maidens in a row.

India do not have a reputation as an exceptional fielding side, but when it mattered, they outshone Sri Lanka. The first hour was full of full-length dives, alert stops and acrobatic tumbles from the likes of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj.

"Imagine the 38-year-old Tendulkar diving on the boundary line," said an ecstatic Sehwag after the game. "We gave everything to the team." And on the day that Murali bowed out of the international game, India played him astutely.

Only once Dhoni was set did they take him on. Malinga, a constant threat with his slingshot yorkers, was treated gingerly, with strokes unveiled right at the end. By then, though, they were getting ready for a night of revelry in the stands.

Dhoni, who first came to national attention with his six-hitting exploits, finished it with one over long-on.

On the eve of the final, he had said: "Until the full stop comes, the sentence isn't complete." He provided the most emphatic one.

sports@thenational.ae