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by P Rajen - July 22, 2002

Nowhere in the world do eras dawn and heroes rise faster than in India. Every time we win a match, we’ve turned the corner. Every time a young player knocks a few runs he’s ambushed by sponsors. Of course, often this glory is a façade.

What does one make of India’s NatWest final victory, especially in the context of the Test series? Holding concentration, and nerve, over five days is quite another matter; Ashish Nehra may look impressive over 10 overs but perhaps not over 50.

Still, there is reason to believe India’s team is on the rise, though gradual is a necessary corollary. An inability to win series in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies (countries that scarcely leave the knees trembling) is offset by Test wins in those countries. Potential exists.

If West Indies was an opportunity scorned, England must be an opportunity taken. While England do not stir the senses, they demolished Sri Lanka and have the quiet hunger of a rebuilding side. They are not intimidating; they are no pushovers either.

Hussain has a boldness and a toughness, and certain disregard for convention, that makes for a resemblance with Ganguly (one pointed to the back of shirt during the one day final, the other took his off). In their spines and minds this summer could be decided.

Ganguly, on paper, appears to have impressive batting resources. Dravid likes England (he debuted there, and was top scorer at the 1999 World Cup); Ganguly’s form is always uncertain but he had a century on debut in England in 1986; Laxman, in the West Indies, appears to have finally figured out that graft is more worthy than grace. And Tendulkar is worth a few hundred runs.

But India’s openers continue to be a problem. Das was a tragedy in the West Indies, and Wasim Jaffer impressive but limited. As such Dravid (or whoever comes in at No.3, another pointless debate) is almost an opening batsman: he’s in before the shine is off. Where will Kaif fit no one knows, or Sehwag for that matter.

Alas, India’s tail has been a disgrace. It is a luxury our top-order brittleness cannot afford. Test matches are won, and therefore lost, on small men doing big things, and their discipline could be key to India’s success.

India’s confidence is stratospheric at present but easily deflated. That said, John Wright has induced a powerful work ethic within this team. As a player told me last week, gym work (they compete with each other) has become a pleasure not a pain. A session with Sandy Gordon, the psychologist who works with the Australian team, is interesting too. Of course, a few hours of positive talk does not breed world champions; still, the interest and willingness signifies a change in an established mindset (earlier, players would say, is the psychologist going to face Brett Lee, how can he help me?)

Ganguly’s achilles heel is his bowlers, most untried and the only tested one (Kumble) comparatively benign once his passport has a foreign stamp. Harbhajan is yet to intimidate batsmen overseas (his time must be coming), and Zaheer, Nehra, Agarkar, Bangar and Yohannan must use control and cunning, swing and seam, to offset a lack of searing pace. Ganguly must juggle his bowlers smartly, but they must repond with discipline.

While no one prays for injury, England’s walking wounded will have buoyed the Indians. It does not cancel out home advantage, nothing does, but it has evened the competition considerably. Marcus Trescothick’s injury means England are almost a wicket down, so triumphant has been his batting. Andy Caddick and Alex Tudor will be invisible, and Mark Butcher and Darren Gough’s fitness after their respective knee surgeries is under sharp scrutiny.

Hoggard and Craig White and Dominic Cork and Ashley Giles are able but not threatening; they will be motivated and sharp, it is the Indians who must choose between self-destruction and taking advantage.

The England team was yet to be announced at time of writing, but England’s batting will surely come from Hussain, Vaughan, Crawley, Thorpe, Flintoff, Stewart. None, except Flintoff have flash, but they are steady batsmen here, whose experience under pressure and in familiar conditions is vital. Batsmen world over love Indian bowlers, and Vaughan will be licking his lips.

India has the confidence of their one day win, England of their Lanka Test series. Both teams are keen to shrug off their mediocre past, and there is an enormous amount to play for.

India must bat well enough to give their bowlers a chance, therein lies the key to any improbable victory (the one day series and now four Tests means they cannot complain too loudly about unfamiliar conditions).

England, with Hussain’s career drifting to an end, will take heart from their performance in the sub continent last winter. That they achieved a ‘moral’ victory in India is rubbish, for there is no such thing. But they played defiantly, and without Gough, Caddick , Stewart and later Thorpe.

England are better than they look; India perhaps not as good as they look..

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