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NatWest Challenge Preview: India

By Chris
August 30 2004

Just as an observer of England’s 2003 form would be hugely surprised by the team’s recent disappointing form, so would a similar observer of the India team of 2003 compared with the 2004 version. India’s 2003 was a highly successful one – being the only team in the World Cup to challenge the Australians in terms of performances over the whole tournament, although sadly failing to match up to the leading team in the world when it came to head-to-head clashes. Creditable performances against Australia and New Zealand at home, and then in the VB series, running Australia close in the group stages, while demolishing Zimbabwe, only served to add to the impression that India was the international team in the best position to challenge Australia’s dominance over the game.

However, the side’s recent form has been disappointing. Two losses against arch-rivals Pakistan, one in the Asia Cup, the other in the recent mini-series in Holland, and the defeat to Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup final, have left many Indian fans considerably less confident about their side’s chances in both the NatWest Challenge and the ICC Champions Trophy. However, the side have been prevented with the perfect opportunity to redeem themselves, firstly against an England side whose form has also fluctuated in the past 12 months, and then later against Pakistan once more in the Champions Trophy.

India’s main strength is its’ perennially strong batting line-up. Even after the late withdrawal of Sachin Tendulkar, the team looks menacing from 1 to 7. Virender Sehwag now looks set to continue to cause his customary carnage at the top of the order, although he will have to do it in the company of another batsman. This will likely come down to a choice between VVS Laxman, many people’s choice for ODI player of the year, whose 4 centuries in ODIs during 2004 indicating that this year may finally be the one in which he begins to fulfil his obvious potential, and the captain, Sourav Ganguly, who has shown in the past that he has what it takes to be a world-class opening one-day batsman. A third, less likely solution, is to open with Ganguly and Laxman, and allow Sehwag’s destructive batting to enable India to maintain a high run-rate throughout the innings, an area of the game in which they have been seriously deficient.

Whichever of Ganguly and Laxman loses out for the openers’ role is likely to take on the number 3 spot, which Ganguly has often occupied during the time that Tendulkar and Sehwag have been India’s openers. Rahul Dravid will come in at 4, or more likely 5, playing a hugely important anchor role. One of the key questions India will attempt to solve during this 3 match series is that of the keeper-batsman role Dravid has been playing. Since the World Cup, Dravid has tended to be used in this role, enabling India to play 7 batsmen. At first, given the huge batting resources at their disposal, this would seem to be the obvious ploy, but recently the poor performances of India’s lower order batsman have caused a review of this policy. Dinesh Karthik, the promising Tamil Nadu wicketkeeper, may be given his chance in the side, releasing Dravid from his ‘keeping duties, and enabling one of Yuvraj Singh or Mohammed Kaif to occupy the number 6 spot. Rohan Gavaskar, the son of legendary opening batsman Sunil, will likely replace Tendulkar. Gavaskar Junior will be looking to continue the promise he showed in Australia, and, of course, to prove that his selection owes more to his ability with a bat than his famous surname. It is also possible that Kaif and Yuvraj will be given the chance both to bat between 4 and 6. The huge choice of batting options at the disposal of Sourav Ganguly and Kiwi coach John Wright complicates India’s selection options, but it is certainly a problem nearly every other side in international cricket would envy.

On the bowling front, India seems to be well equipped for matches in late-autumn England. The pitches, baked all summer under the sun, may well prove to be dry, and take spin well, but the likelihood of dampness in the atmosphere, if not actual rain, may bring bowlers with the ability to swing the ball into the game. India, in Ashish Nehra, have a bowler whose swing has caused England problems before, and Irfan Pathan, possibly the most promising young fast bowler in world cricket, is also a good swing bowler. If Lakshmipathy Balaji retains his ability to hold a consistent line and length, the contest between the pace bowlers of either side could prove a fascinating one. Ajit Agarkar, a proven ODI performer, completes India’s quartet of pace bowlers. However, it may be that unless he proves his ability to contribute with the bat, he will be overlooked in favour of Harbajan Singh or Anil Kumble. The 5th set of 10 overs will be filled by an assortment of India’s part time bowlers, Ganguly, Sehwag and Yuvraj. England’s biggest advantage over India is probably that they can afford to play 5 front-line bowlers, because Andrew Flintoff is also good enough to be picked for his batting. India will be hoping the part-timers can keep the English batsmen sufficiently under control so that they must take unnecessary risks against the frontline bowlers.

Conditions in England are likely to favour the bowlers, as explained previously. The worst-case scenario is that of the rain which England has suffered from during most of August appearing in quantities large enough to seriously affect the series. London in particular, has experience spells of hot, humid sunshine, followed by periods of heavy rain. With the last 2 matches to be played at the Oval and Lords’, the teams will be praying that their preparations for the Champions Trophy are not disturbed. India, in particular, need the match practice, after the washout in Holland.

The series should be a close, even and highly exciting one. On one hand, India’s batsmen have the quality to score large totals and to chase them, and they possess the bowlers to exploit the conditions we are likely to encounter at this time in England. England’s hopes will lie largely with Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison. It will not have gone unnoticed that while the theory that India’s batsmen are susceptible to extreme pace alone is a myth, there have been occasions when pace combined with high bounce have seriously unsettled them. Flintoff and Harmison will be looking to bowl at their customary high speeds, and to prevent the cut shot by maintaining a tight off-stump line. Meanwhile, India’s pace bowlers will hope to exploit Marcus Trescothicks’ perceived weakness against the moving ball, to prevent Michael Vaughn from finally finding good ODI form, and to prey upon the inexperience of Andrew Strauss.

My prediction? A close series, going to the wire, which India will take 2-1.

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