An Indian resurgence

Print edition : October 25, 2002

India announces in the ICC Champions Trophy its arrival as a team of fighters, but the real test will be the World Cup in South Africa.

Skipper Saurav Ganguly, on his way to an unbeaten 117 against England in the ICC Champions Trophy.-N. BALAJI

IT was billed as the clash of the titans, two Asian giants facing off in a cup final, the winner taking it all. In the end, the `winners' split it half.

Anti-climactic one might say. Yet, with the famous Colombo rain finally deciding to make an appearance, the ICC Champions Trophy could only end this way, Sourav Ganguly and Sanath Jayasuriya holding the prize together.

Ganguly, who believed that India had a definite chance of winning the cup after restricting the Sri Lankans to 244 and 222 in the final and the replayed match, was a touch disappointed. Yet, the Indians carried with them happy memories. There were several positive features that emerged from the team's display.

Ganguly was forthright in his leadership and that is a good sign; a skipper has to be decisive. Not being the kind to hold back his punches, Ganguly will always have his detractors. Yet, it is about time we gave the man his due.

He is aggressive and his approach has rubbed off on the team. The Indians no longer are intimidated when they take on the `heavy-weights' in world cricket, and it is here that Ganguly's positive influence has helped.

It was in February-March 2001, when Ganguly was `eyeball to eyeball' with the master of the mind games, Steve Waugh. The Indian did not blink. Waugh and his men, for a change, were on the losing side in the psychological battle even as the `Final Frontier' remained unconquered. Ganguly has continued in the same vein.

After a bit of a rough ride away from home, the Indians, under Ganguly, have certainly managed to turn the corner. Along the way, runs have started to flow again from the skipper's blade, with the southpaw developing the `pull stroke', in particular, to counter the short ball from pacemen.

Virendar Sehwag at work against Sri Lanka in the replayed final.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

In Colombo, Ganguly made the bowling changes well: he used the impressive Zaheer Khan in three or four bursts, and his decision to give an extended spell to Virender Sehwag in the semifinal against South Africa was a masterstroke. Yet, Ganguly would do well to rein in his temper the exchange of words with Russel Arnold in the replayed final could have been avoided. He has to retain the cutting edge in his captaincy while remaining calm on the field.

IT is when the heat is on that a team has to reveal its mettle. The Indians, who have succumbed to pressure so often in the past, appear to be a different side these days, never quite giving in, and coming back into the game time and again.

Both in the final of the NatWest series, and in the ICC Champions Trophy, where India rallied magnificently against Zimbabwe and South Africa, this quality was evident. The team displayed the strength of mind to come through demanding situations and earned the respect of their adversaries.

The side played with much passion, pride and heart in the mega-event, bucking the odds, fighting back from impossible situations with `that will to win' shining through.

The youngsters have transformed the side, and in Sri Lanka one saw further evidence of this. Sehwag was wonderful at the top of the order, striking the ball with both power and timing, picking the gaps with ease, hitting over the top disdainfully, and providing a tremendous fillip to the run-rate early on.

He got into position quickly, played the ball a touch late giving himself that much more time to pick his spots, and was not intimidated by names. Sehwag, indeed, is a little powerhouse as an opener in One Day Internationals. His `death or glory' 126, where he ripped open the English attack, will not be forgotten soon.

Importantly, the young man has a sound temperament; he maintains his composure during nerve-jangling moments. This was best reflected at the `death' against South Africa, where his stump-to-stump off-spin never gave room for Jacques Kallis or Lance Klusener, two fearsome strikers of the cricket ball, to unwind for the big blows that the Proteas so desperately required.

Mohammed Kaif, whose beautifully paced 112-ball 111 against Zimbabwe in India's opening `Pool 2' game he walked in with the side reeling at 87 for five was a priceless effort, has added weight to the line-up as a solid No. 7 batsman, with the ability to collect his singles and twos with ease. He sprints well between the wickets and can launch into the bowling with those whiplash blows when the occasion demands them.

Yuveraj singh is a much more mature batsman now, having tempered his aggression. He can still be explosive if the need arises, but is more careful with his shot selection.

Vitally, Yuveraj and Mohammed Kaif have lifted the standards of Indian fielding, inspiring the whole team in the process. It was Yuveraj's sensational catch in the semifinal, when he dived full length to his right at short fine leg to pluck the ball out of thin air when Jonty Rhodes top-edged a sweep, that stoked the combative instinct in the Indians.

Harbhajan Singh exults after taking the wicket of Sri Lanka's Aravinda de Silva.-N. BALAJI

Coming to the seniors, maestro Sachin Tendulkar had an indifferent time in the Champions Trophy. This is a temporary phase. Tendulkar, along with Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid make India one of the top two batting sides in the world, along with Australia. Ganguly's unbeaten 117 against England was an intelligent effort. He wisely allowed Sehwag to call the shots, before dismantling the attack ruthlessly in the later stages. Dravid's half centuries against Zimbabwe and South Africa were both crucial knocks. He held the innings together, without compromising on the run-rate. He rotates the strike better these days.

Zaheer Khan operated with fire, achieving crucial breakthroughs, keeping the run-rate down, and obtained reverse swing in the end overs. The left-arm paceman fired on all cylinders. Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh bowled in a crafty fashion. He got the ball to turn both ways, used the crease well, and brought about subtle changes in flight and pace in an exhibition of high-quality off-spin.

THE emphasis clearly has been on India blending together as a Team and not as a bunch of individuals. The Indian captain was spot on when he said: "We need to stop selecting individuals and making them stars. We have to pick an eleven and back it." Coach John Wright echoed these sentiments when he observed: "The team comes first, not individuals."

On the contentious issue of Tendulkar's batting slot in One Day Internationals, both the captain and the coach believed that the interests of the side would be better served by Tendulkar batting at Number 4, though the maestro himself had indicated his desire to open. In the backdrop of the raging controversy over the player contracts and sponsorships, the team put mind over matter, and jelled as one single, combative outfit.

The coach, in his own non-obtrusive manner, has guided the team along the right path; the team management has had to take some tough decisions in order to keep the balance of the side in mind. The concept of having seven specialist batsmen made possible by Dravid keeping wickets has worked wonders for the side, and when Ganguly was slated to come at Number 4 in the final, with the specific idea of taking on off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan, it displayed a refreshing flexibility in approach by the think tank. This team was not averse to changing tactics if the need arose. Given India's hectic schedule and the extreme demands on the players physically, the roles of physio Andrew Leipus and fitness trainer Adrian Le Roux have been vital too. `The foreign hand' has been a helpful one.

THE World Cup being the big picture, there are several loose ends to be tied. The form of senior leg-spinner Anil Kumble has been worrying, while the injury-prone left-arm paceman Aashish Nehra only impressed in certain bursts. Paceman Ajit Agarkar can be handy with the willow the team management is keen on trying him as a pinch-hitter but his bowling has been wayward. Can old warrior Javagal Srinath fill the void? His levels of fitness could be the key. There still is room for improvement in the fielding and running between the wickets.

What the Indians will encounter in South Africa will be vastly different from the conditions at the Premadasa Stadium, where India played all its matches. The Premadasa pitch played slower and lower in the latter half of the contest, and, as the ball got softer, scoring progressively became harder.

India would do well not to get carried away by its heartening display at the ICC Champions Trophy. Yet, the psychological gains of sharing the `mini World Cup', and the momentum gained by the result, can be used positively. Ganguly's men should be ready for the challenge when the ball seams and swings.

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