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by P Rajan - June 26, 2002

The months roll by faster than we think. Suddenly, soccer's World Cup is at an end, suddenly cricket's version beckons.

The calendar is, as usual, clogged with one-day tournaments, most of which leave no memory, and no one could care less beyond a few desperate supporters. But now it is different. Now teams read more into their results, they hone their plans, they test their players. Most things are done with the World Cup in mind and it makes the NatWest triangular considerably more important than it usually would be.

Of course, neither Pakistan, South Africa nor Australia is there, the three better one day teams, so it is more a clash of lesser mortals. Also, England's conditions are scarcely replicated in South Africa. Still, form is form.

India arrives in England with not much ammunition, their bandolier stuffed less with real bullets than the blanks of hope. But they have improved, even if marginally. The West Indies is hardly a barometer for anything these days, still considering India's weak-kneed Test performance their one-day bounce back for a 2-1 win was worth some confidence points.

On paper, which rarely means anything and for India almost nothing, the batting is strong with Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, Yuvraj, but the latter three have yet to taste England's cold and swing, and the former three can only do so much. Still, we are debating whether Tendulkar should open, though such matters should long have been decided.

The bowling in comparison is an even more unknown quantity, which is alarming. The spinners, of course, are old hat, Kumble, who is battling to prolong his career, and Harbhajan who is insistent on proving he is not like his predecessor an India-only bowler. The series against Australia last spring is a distant memory.

Srinath has gone, too early it seems, and suddenly a fast bowler constantly vilified is being asked "come back, please" and what irony there is to that. It leaves Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Tinu Yohannan, only Agarkar among them having some reputation and not a great one at that. Still, Nehra can move the ball and appears ambitious and Yohannan is often underestimated, while Zaheer, were he to work harder, has the potential. But all of it, for all of them, must translate soon.

Furthermore, the English are at home, while the Lankans have walked the pitches and felt the cold and have had a superior acclimitisation period. It gives India much to play for, a win would be a substantial achievement. Rahul Dravid recently said that India in the West Indies were just not good enough, and the statement is more damning than one thinks.

Sri Lanka are a trifle similar to India, in the sense that their batting seems to outstrip their bowling, especially as Murali, who troubles even the spin-friendly Indians, is not available (Pakistan is the only sub-continental team whose bowling induces fear, as Australia will testify.)

Despite their Test series loss to England, Sri Lanka have made impressive strides back into contention in the past few years, looking more like the 1996 team than the decrepid 1999 one. They are physically strong (the Indians frequently commented on that on their failed tour last year), have found some interesting young players, and the disciplined Dav Whatmore and the quiet leadership of Jayasuriya can take the credit. Somehow the Lankans appear more ambitious than the Indians and it is hard to fathom why.

England will, it seems, be without Andy Caddick, Darren Gough and Mark Butcher, and in a team that comprises no great players but many decent ones, their absence will hurt. But there is an assurance to captain Nasser Hussain, and a steel, which his players have responded to. They toured India most capably, and made short work of Sri Lanka.

They know the grounds, have no fear of cold, and own the best form. That makes a final appearance for them almost inevitable. India and Sri Lanka will contest the other place, and it will take resolve from the Indians to oust their neighbours. The fact that each country plays the other thrice leaves scant room for excuses.

Captain Ganguly may be controversial, but he is considerably ambitious and has advertised his irritation over India's continued spurning of opportunities. If he is to survive, and India to make some headway in next year's World Cup, there could be no better time to find form than now.

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