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An intriguing fixture list - Chetan Narula Column
by Chetan Narula
Jan 30, 2009
Fixture lists are big debatable issues in the world of football. Only recently, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez made a rant over their title rivals' Manchester United's fixtures over the next eight weeks and got a great deal off-the-field talk going on. When the stakes are so high, playing games with a gap of two-three days becomes a real headache and it is only advantageous then if the matches against the weaker teams are all bunched up together by the computer. Suddenly, a similar list is gaining importance in world cricket too. Especially with three teams in the mix for the race to the finish line, the fixtures list becomes an important parameter especially this year.

Ever since team India embarked on a great run of good form, there has been talk of getting to the top of the heap, the much coveted No.1 ranking. The chief of selectors Kris Srikkanth made it clear in no uncertain terms that the Indian team that they select will be going whole hog towards the top spot in 2009 and for once, the destination of this arduous journey seems realistic.

When we were living in 2008, this year's schedule seemed so choked that it was impossible to find a window where the players would be able to breathe in. This fact hasn't changed for the clammed up calendar is yet to find a suitable spot for the ICC Champions Trophy, if it happens. The only window players could have enjoyed would have been before the T20 World Cup in England this June, but the IPL has effectively stolen that time for many years to come.

In that sense, having the current series against Sri Lanka and then incrementing the New Zealand tour wouldn't really please the players, would it now? Well, look at the other side of the coin; in a bid to cut its losses, the BCCI may have just given India the necessary boost towards the top, unknowingly for sure.

Australia and South Africa are head to head in both ranking list and India some three to five points away in both, which altogether means that the latter especially will need a real string of good results this year to haul itself amidst the first two teams. The Aussies and Proteas have started early, already having played an ODI series and while the South Africans now go home, content and victorious, Australia will look to regain their top spot in ODIs in the series against New Zealand itself. It won't be an enormous task to do that and it would inadvertently begin a three way fight which will only culminate towards the end of the year.

For, simultaneously India will be playing Sri Lanka away, before embarking on a full tour to New Zealand. Winning away from home has never been of so much importance. In affect, it was the 3-2 series win against Sri Lanka in Lanka last year that catapulted India onto the big stage, with their CB Series win playing as buffer in the ranking calculations. And so, India finished the year on an ODIs high.

Finishing this year on a similar high, they have to win their first two ODI engagements this year as well. This becomes even handy as the Indian team will be playing at home for much of the remaining year, starting with ODI series against Australia later this September. Good results are almost always expected at home and coupled with these away wins the Indian team should really surge then. Plus, playing an extra test against the Kiwis will only help in deciding an otherwise possibly drawn series and with New Zealand cricket not enjoying the best of times, India can expect things to play down in their favour.

What will also go into their favour is the fact that South Africa only have Australia to play before the IPL, and on a return leg. Now, Australia are really licking their wounds after the mauling at home and therefore, anything can be expected out of this ODI rubber. The Tests are very much expected to go in South Africa's favour though. Afterwards the Proteas will have to wait a long time before England come calling in the winter and even then, they will be starting with Tests first.

All in all, then, South Africa look good to take over the test number one spot. The Australians can never be really counted out but there is this inevitability about the whole situation this time. They started the ODI series well after the defeat in the Test series and every one, from commentators to fans to the team itself, thought that they had made that cross over needed. But with a 4-1 walloping, it is now beyond doubt that this will be a long recovery process for the Aussies even by their standards.

And after they play South Africa on a return tour, they move to England to play for 'the urn' once again. With the Ashes on the line, rankings will be the last thing on Ponting's mind and then, a subsequent tour to India won't be a relishing prospect either, considering how the 2008 tour went for them. Only when they return home in November, will they have Pakistan and West Indies to contend with, a somewhat easier proposition than their earlier matches but such is the doubt about Aussie cricket at the moment, one doesn't know what to expect even then!

So all in all, South Africa can be expected to trump the Test rankings while India should make it to the top of the ODI listings. But it isn't as easy as it sounds. Sure, India only play limited Test matches this year and the gap therefore is too large to narrow down. The best opportunity to do so will be when they play South Africa at home in March 2010. But that is a long way off and thus we can concentrate on the ODIs.

Somehow, the task will be tougher to manage than expected. For one, the sheer number of them games can be an excruciating pain to keep the bodies and mind fit. And then there is this huge possibility of everything not going to plan.

And that is where India need to build a great bench strength, especially with the IPL and recent Ranji performances throwing up a good few names. Rotating players would be in the best of interests of the team as keeping the in-form key players hungry and fresh for more will be the key to this long, hard battle to the top!
More Views by Chetan Narula
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