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
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
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
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.