Build-up or let-down?

India's YOUNG BRIGADE has been a little tardy in revealing its talent to the cricketing world but the precocious ability of the players will soon be exposed for all to see and admire.

In the past 12 months the hopes and fortunes of the Indian and England cricket teams have followed strangely similar paths. Just under a year ago, "Merrie England" was at its merriest, having wrested the Ashes from the Aussies for the first time since 1987. Then it encountered Pakistan on its own pitches — and its lucky shares headed south — down to defeat by margins of 2-0 in Tests and 3-2 in the ODIs.

Like Vaughan's side — correction read Trescothick's men — wrong again, I mean Flintoff's team, India began last year in fine style under the new management of Dravid and Greg Chappell. It shared the honours in a three-Test series with England and might have won the rubber, had it not been for Strauss's and Flintoff's miraculous batting rescue act on a deteriorating Mumbai pitch. Then England surrendered the last vestige of its Ashes euphoria when Dravid's Daring Young Men thrashed it 4-1 in the limited-overs run-fest.

After handing out such a drubbing, it would not have been unexpected if India's one-day form on its subsequent West Indian tour had resulted in a whitewash of Lara's Caribbean combination: a team which, in the recent few months, could justifiably have been dubbed "The Sick Man of World Cricket!" Instead of which, the members of the home team rolled up their collective sleeves and proceeded to wipe the floor with their one-day opponent by the emphatic margin of four games to one. Funny game this cricket!

After England's unconvincing performances against Pakistan and India, one might justifiably have expected Andrew Flintoff to be viewing the prospect of facing up to Australia in November's Ashes trial of strength with some degree of apprehension. Especially when one considered the ease with which Ricky Ponting's World Champion side dispatched Graeme Smith's South Africa — at home and away — and the West Indies and Bangladesh. Nor was the English confidence bolstered by its growing casualty list: in particular, Michael Vaughan's dicky knee, which seems to be heading for complete reconstruction.

On the brighter side, Marcus Trescothick's recent domestic form suggests that the affliction, which occasioned his mysterious early return from the sub-continent, is a thing of the past. Sadly the same cannot be said about the fast reverse-swing expert, Simon Jones' troublesome knee. And the persistence of Ashley Giles' hip injury continues to restrict England's spin department to the Power of One.

But Flintoff's team and its enthusiastic "barmy army" thumb their noses at such fortuitous setbacks. After all, did not England beat the world champion just a few months ago? Moreover, Pommie hearts were uplifted by the infusion of confident young bloods into the side: a move which has injected the team with a new lease of life. Each time that South African expatriate, Kevin Pietersen strides to the wicket to reverse sweep an opposition pace bowler for six, it turns the clock back to the aggressive unorthodoxy of Denis Compton: a man who, like Pietersen, made his team-mates believe that, with confidence and positive thinking, everything is possible.

Left-handed, debutant opener, Alistair Cook, showed he had already learned this lesson of self-assurance when, stepping jet-lagged, from the England `A' team tour of the West Indies, he notched a century at his first attempt in Nagpur. Then came the batting Miracle of Mumbai — to square the Anglo-Indian series at the last gasp — and prove that the age of Miracles is not past.

For its part, India showed that anything England does, it can do equally as well, if not better. Moreover Dravid's side has the edge in youth. Pietersen's disregard of conventional batting methods finds its mirror image in the explosive aggression of 24-year-old keeper-batsman Mahendra Dhoni; and Trescothick's stroke-making inclinations are matched by those of Virender Sehwag. More orthodox talents are on display in the batting techniques of Robin Uthappa, 20, and Yuraj Singh, 24, — and these are well supported by those of teenager Suresh Raina and Mohammad Kaif. Spin is plentifully on call in the wily fingers of Harbhajan Singh, "offie" Ramesh Powar and Anil Kumble; but on the real pace-bowling front, Dravid — in need of support for Irfan Pathan, 21, — looks towards Vikram Singh, 21, "Gopu" Sreesanth, 23, and Munaf Patel, 22. The steady medium-pace swing of Ajit Agarkar will come in useful when it comes to the crucial overs `at the death' in one-dayers.

It may well be argued that India's young international brigade has been a little tardy in revealing its talent to the cricketing world — and that perhaps it suffers a smidgeon in experience when compared to England and Australia. But talent will out and I feel that the precocious ability of the Indian team will soon be exposed for all to see and admire. For this to occur, however, the Indian selectors must show themselves to be objective judges of cricketing ability; moreover they must have enough faith to stick by the men of their choice and give them adequate opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. In return, the players must work hard to justify the confidence of the selectors and produce the figures to authenticate the justice of their choice. Dravid and his young players are the astronauts of Indian cricket; they are on the launching pad ready to explore the boundless possibilities of the World Cup. More than that, however, it is their responsibility to go beyond the limits of their solar system and build up a side, which will represent their country with distinction on the international field for a decade to come. Youth is cricket's natural corollary and we will soon see if there is any truth in Graham Gooch's alleged statement that Sehwag and Kaif are "leaning not so much on reputation as goodwill."