It is only fitting that two stalwarts of the game will cross paths for one last time in the final of the 2011 World Cup at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. While this will be Muttiah Muralitharan's last international match; it is more than likely that though Sachin Tendulkar will continue playing international cricket, the final on April 2, 2011, would be his swansong in World Cups.
Tendulkar and Muralitharan have had contrasting careers. Tendulkar's career has mainly been controversy-free, but the same can't be said of Muralitharan, whose bowling action was under the scanner for quite a while before it was finally and rightly deemed to be legal. It is a testament to his talent and spirit though that Muralitharan didn’t let these controversies affect his performances on the field; in fact, he came back stronger more often than not each time after his skill was questioned. Tendulkar has had to deal with the expectations of more than a billion people for most of his 21-year international career, but he has carried those burdens like a true champion and has been unfazed by all the attention showered on him.
Tendulkar and Muralitharan are not only icons on and off the field, but they have also retained their love, hunger and passion for the game despite achieving one landmark after the other and setting records that are unlikely to be ever broken. Tendulkar is the highest run-scorer in Tests and one-day internationals and is now on the cusp of 100 international hundreds – he has so far scored 51 and 48 centuries in Tests and ODIs respectively. Muralitharan is the highest wicket-taker in Tests and ODIs and has taken 1347 wickets in all formats of cricket – 800 in Tests, 534 in ODIs and 13 in Twenty20 internationals. The sheer impressive volume of these and their other numbers apart, one of the highlights of Tendulkar and Muralitharan's careers has been their constant desire to improve and continuously hone their skills to remain on top. They have also paid heed as age caught up with them and made subtle but significant changes in their individual games to ensure they maintained their form and this has helped Tendulkar and Muralitharan to keep setting benchmarks, most of which are bound to stay for posterity, even as their teammates and peers across the cricketing world continue to marvel at the pair’s undiminished hunger for success and perfection.
They are also big match players, and have rarely let their teams down in crunch matches over the years even as they led from the front with bat (Tendulkar) and ball (Muralitharan). It is a testament to their standing in the cricketing world that opposition teams never rested easy when Tendulkar was in the middle or when Muralitharan weaved magic with the ball. Such respect by the opposition is only reserved for the game's elite, and both of them are at the top of the heap when it comes to being counted amongst the all-time greats of the game.
Tendulkar and Muralitharan have also acted as mentors for the younger players in the team and have been sounding boards for the experienced members of the squad. Muralitharan, who is the only Tamil in the Sri Lankan team, has also played the role of 'peace-maker' and unifying factor in his country whenever he has taken the field and is also involved with various charities. On the other hand, despite having the ability to stop and entire nation when he walks out to bat, Tendulkar hasn't let success after success get to his head, and this is one of the most endearing qualities in the man from Mumbai.
Tendulkar and Muralitharan have both had it good in the 2011 World Cup – the Indian batting legend is second in the run-scorers list with 464 runs, while Muralitharan with 15 wickets is fifth in the list of leading wicket-takers in the tournament. It will be an interesting battle between Tillakaratne Dilshan (467) and Tendulkar in the final to finish as the leading run-scorer in the mega-event. Muralitharan, who has suffered a spate of injuries in the tournament, is expected to play in the final, and needs three more wickets to equal Australian legend Glenn McGrath’s record of 71 World Cup wickets.
It is a pity that only either Tendulkar or Muralitharan would be smiling at the end of the final, but they will want to get one over the other for the last time should they face-off in the final. Muralitharan was part of Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup winning squad and would want to cap off his international career with a second title; while Tendulkar will be desperate to win the one title that has so far eluded him in his illustrious career. While the maestros battle it out in the middle at the Wankhede Stadium, let's sit back and savour the sight (hopefully) of Muralitharan bowling to Tendulkar for the last time in an international match.