NEW DELHI, April 1 – Praise and admiration rained down on Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan on Friday, as cricket's two most successful performers prepared to bring their World Cup careers to an end.
India opener Tendulkar, playing in his sixth and probably last World Cup, is desperate to capture the only piece of silverware missing from his record-breaking collection.
Added spice is provided by Saturday’s final against Sri Lanka being played at his home Wankhede stadium in Mumbai where a century will make him the first batsman to score a hundred international centuries.
"If you bat with Sachin for 15 games you have the kind of experience you’d have after 50 games," said India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni in praise of a man who is just three weeks shy of his 38th birthday.
Dhoni, whose team reached the final by putting out champions Australia and Pakistan in the knockout rounds, added that India have still to hit top gear as they aim to become the first team to win the World Cup on home turf.
"There is plenty more to come from us. We gained momentum as the tournament went on and we are now peaking at the right time."
Muralitharan, the only member of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup winning squad still playing in the national team, will retire after Saturday, bringing down the curtain on a 19-year career which has yielded 534 ODI wickets.
The off-spinner, who will celebrate his 39th birthday on April 17, is an injury doubt for Saturday’s match after suffering a series of injuries throughout the tournament.
But with 15 wickets already to his name in this event, he is crucial to his team’s chances and is just three wickets short of equalling Australian seamer Glenn McGrath’s record of 71 World Cup victims.
"Murali’s presence is always important. He’s a big-match player, he’s been amazing for us, so hopefully if he is fit he will take the field," said Sri Lanka skipper Kumar Sangakkara.
Both sides suffered injury setbacks on Friday.
Sri Lanka all-rounder Angelo Mathews was ruled out with a side strain to be replaced in the squad by Suraj Randiv.
Indian left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra is also out having fractured the middle finger on his right hand in Wednesday’s semi-final win over Pakistan.
"Ashish is most certainly out of the final because he has multiple fractures on a finger in the right hand," Dhoni said.
A massive security operation has been mounted for the final — the highest-profile sporting event to be held in Mumbai since the deadly 2008 militant attacks which left 166 people dead.
Although no specific threat has been made for the match between India and Sri Lanka, Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik said he would prefer to take no chances with the safety of players and spectators.
"We will be overdoing it a bit," he admitted. "But it’s better to be on the safe side. The stakes are high."
For the final, to be attended by Indian President Pratibha Patil and her Sri Lankan counterpart, Mahinda Rajapakse, Patnaik said some 3,500 personnel will be deployed inside and outside the ground.
Meanwhile, the International Cricket Council insisted the tournament, which staged its first warm-up matches on February 12, had been a sporting and commercial success.
The first round took four weeks to complete only for the world’s eight top-ranked teams to fill the eight places in the quarter-finals.
"The future of 50-over cricket seems assured after this fantastic tournament in which records have tumbled and TV ratings and attendances have exceeded expectations," said ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat.
"The final TV audience will exceed one billion."
The media in India and Sri Lanka were in a frenzy ahead of the final.
"Sri Lanka can!" said the Colombo-based Daily FT in banner headlines. "Wishing the Sri Lankan team best of luck," the Daily Mirror said. ‘Rally round team," urged the front-page headline in the state-run Daily News.
Cinemas and theatres said they were cancelling their Saturday evening shows as the entire country was expected to be watching the final on television.
Cricket clubs said they would set up giant television screens while bars said they were extending "happy hour" to cover the entire duration of the match.
In India, the Hindustan Times headlined its front page: "Now for the icing on the cake."