by P. Rajan
Any cricket team's most searching examination comes outside its borders, and by
that measure India has been a magnificent failure. They are masters only of their own
geography, winning 14 of 157 Tests played off-shore, winning their last series outside the
sub-continent in England in the mid-1980s, transiting effortlessly from warriors to wimps once their
boarding cards are punched.
Two days ago Ian Chappell said, India have to learn to win abroad and I don't
mean Zimbabwe. Yet last time India grappled with the young African nation in
Zimbabwe, a one-off Test, they lost. It was a humiliation routinely digested but new coach John
Wright has a steelier stomach, and he demands more from this Indian team than has ever been asked.
India contends they have closed the book on the past, and this first chapter of
the future is fraught with excitement and uncertainty. Two Test matches are to be played, at
Bulawayo (7-11 June) and Harare (15-19 June), and the pitches should play hard and fast,
for that is where Zimbabwe's strength lies and India's weakness.
The key will be India's batting, laughingly suggested as the best in the world,
when all evidence is to the contrary. Still, three men come quickly to mind. Sachin Tendulkar for
reasons obvious and some less so. His gifts on any wicket, any continent, lie beyond debate, but
the emergence of VVS Laxman gives the team and Tendulkar a different dimension.
Always Tendulkar bats under pressure, expected to remain at the wicket, score
runs and dominate, with no excuses for bad days allowed. Laxman, always a gifted batsman
who has merely realised how good he actually is (and thus is complete with confidence),
allows Tendulkar options. If timing sweetly Sachin may attack, if not he may not feel
as hurried and desperate as before. The third Musketeer is Rahul Dravid, not merely by virtue
of his present glittering form, but by the reality that his ability stays constant even on
Saurav Ganguly outside India is looked upon less generously, as a batsman who
can be worked out, a flirter with away-going deliveries, and brittle in character, as batsman
at least. Clearly arrogant, which is not always a sporting sin, he is aware he has a point to
prove and that could be a blessing. On the flipside a further deterioration of form suggests his
thinking as captaincy could be clouded.
SS Das, the opener, is spoken highly of, but is raw, and S.Ramesh brings flair
and desperately confounding inconsistency.
Still, they must score, for as Anil Kumble once said, India's plan has been to
bully teams, especially at home, to notch up scores of 400-600, thus allowing room for its
bowlers to manouvre. Despite a slight renaissance of spin authored by the ebullient and
reasonably crafty Harbhajan Singh, India's bowling still lacks a certain sting. Srinath is on a
slow fade, Zaheer Khan on a slow climb, Ajit Agarkar mystifying in his lack of control.
Remember, in India, last year, though acceptably on a pitch that had captain
Ganguly in a fury, Zimbabwe managed to draw one of two Tests.
Dighe is the obvious and only wicketkeeper, but there is much to be said for the
confident, attacking Hemang Badani who alas may not get a game. But write his name down, he
believes he owns the future.
India plans with more intelligence than before, does its homework like a
diligent son, is a step faster in the field, and alive with a commitment we did not think existed.
But Zimbabwe, built around Flower, Flower and Streak, who sound like some
new-wave tattoo and piercing parlour, fresh from victory over Bangladesh (a win is a win
is a win), are solid if not necessarily inventive or engaging.
Andy Flower, with an average of 50.97 played an innings in India which had even
had a despairing Ganguly saluting: It was an unbelievable innings, he said. Brother
Grant (average 31.51)is no slouch either, and Streak the captain with 149 wickets and an
ability to construct semi-Klueseneresque innings (he has 6 50s) is a burly assassin.
But they are more than that, with known soldiers like Stuart Carlisle (16 Tests,
23.66 average) and Guy Whittall (39 Tests, 32 odd average) and Alistair Campbell (50 Tests,
26.45 average), bolstered by new men like the wonderfully named batsman Dion Digby Ebrahim and
the beef-farmer's son A.M.Blignaut.
Few of these men have threatening skills, but they get the ball to move around
and bounce and they field like ballet dancers using a cricket field as a set, and this
workmanlike endeavour unhinges the Indians, who once swore only by creativity (which came only in
bursts) but have disciplined it under Wright.
Talent-wise India weighs heavy; the conditions lie in Zimbabwe?s camp. Talent
has always been defeated; this time, India should prevail.