Gunning for more glory

S. DINAKAR

AS skippers, they are different. Sourav Ganguly is very much the tough-talking captain, who is not averse to taking a stand and fighting tooth and nail to swing things his way.

Sanath Jayasuriya believes in a more collective approach on the field, does not quite have the felicity with words that his Indian counterpart possesses, and, in general, is less aggressive in his methods when he doesn't have the willow in hand.

-N. BALAJI

Yet, on a rainy September night at the Premadasa Stadium, when the two held the ICC Champions Trophy between them, both had a story to tell about themselves and their teams.

When Ganguly gazes over the events of the last six months, he could well afford himself a smile; he had guided the side through an uncertain phase, and if India is today considered a serious contender in the World Cup 2003, the captain does deserve his share of credit, something that he has not always received.

He has been under fire from several quarters, his attitude has been questioned, yet, Ganguly is just the kind of captain, who will be missed more when he is not around.

It is so easy to point a finger at him. However, hadn't the entire nation aspired for bold, attacking skipper, who doesn't care much about reputations, who seldom gets intimidated, and who believes in 'eye-for-an-eye?'

True, he goes overboard on occasions - the skipper does have to reflect on this - yet the positives of Ganguly's captaincy exceed the negatives...by a distance. Along the way, he has also shown the resolve to work on his batting, and fight his way back from indifferent form, keeping the sharks at bay.

The Indian team too has rallied well around its skipper. It is a combative side, that must have been psychologically down following the disappointment of losing the Test series in the West Indies, after grabbing the lead. Yet, from that point on, the team has charted a very different path.

India won the ODI series in the Caribbean, went on to triumph in the NatWest finals after that extraordinary run-chase at Lord's, came back from a 0-1 deficit to square the Test series, and now has whipped up another bright performance, in the Champions Trophy.

The side has displayed loads of character, enormous self-belief, and just refuses to say die. Ganguly certainly had the right words when he said, "considering the amount of cricket we have played over the last six months, I am delighted with the fight we have shown."

Indeed, this Indian team has fought and fought well. There is a wonderful mix of experience and youth in the side now, with Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, complemented by the Young Guns, Virender Sehwag, Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh.

Sehwag's form in the Champions Trophy was awesome, and he has definitely emerged as one of the most feared strikers of the ball in the ODIs at the top of the order. Kaif is a well organised batsman with the heart for the battle, while Yuveraj is maturing fast, blending periods of caution with aggression. With the quick-silver Kaif and Yuveraj around, the quality of fielding has gone up a few notches, and Sehwag's flattish off-spin, has added depth to the attack.

The team-management's decision to go in with seven specialist batsmen for the ODIs - made possible by Dravid 'keeping wickets - has worked like magic. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh have been outstanding with the ball. However, the side does have a few problems on the bowling front; Ashish Nehra's form has been a mixture of the brilliant and the erratic, Ajit Agarkar has had more bad days than good with the ball in recent times, and Anil Kumble had a rather ordinary time in Lanka. Javagal Srinath could still play a key role, if given the opportunities.

As coach John Wright admitted, the fifth bowler quota, often shared, has been going for far too many runs. There was also room for improvement in fielding and running between the wickets.

The think-tank also appears firm in its view that the interests of the side are better served with Tendulkar batting at No.4, although, this is an area where a little flexibility, keeping in mind Tendulkar's stature as a cricketer, would not hurt the side's cause. If the loose ends, that includes discovering the right No. 3. and an allrounder, are tied, India has the talent and the heart to go all the way in the 2003 World Cup.

Sanath Jayasuriya, who is smarter than he looks, has suffered because there has been a tendency to compare him with old fox Arjuna Ranatunga, one of the shrewdest captains of our times.

In his own way, Jayasuriya, who believes in leading from the front and letting his performances speak for him, has helped Lankan cricket turn the corner. Jayasuriya was certainly making a statement when throwing caution to the winds, he braved a dislocated right shoulder that had still not fully healed, to notch up a scintillating hundred in the inaugural game of the Champions Trophy, against Pakistan. It was a match-winning effort, one that inspired the entire team.

The Islanders had endured a wretched time in England, where the side lost a wonderful opportunity to nail the host in the first Test and then fell away as the tour progressed. Sri Lanka lost a series 2-0, where it should have taken a 1-0 lead. Thus, when the side, with a few changes, competed in the NatWest ODI competition, it was already a demoralised outfit.

Sri Lanka underwent a wretched phase, even as the NatWest series became a two-way race, between India and England, and there was severe criticism back home. When the side returned, the selectors blooded youngsters in numbers against lowly Bangladesh, and it was clear that Lankan cricket was passing through a troubled phase.

On that disastrous campaign of England, Sri Lanka was without Muralitharan's craft and guile in the ODIs; the off-spinner was only partly fit when he took part in the latter stages of the Test series.

And the Lankan batsmen, a bunch of strokemakers, struggled in the first half of the English summer where the ball moved around quite significantly. The islanders had to pick up the pieces.

Yet, when the side journeyed to Morocco for the three-nation tournament, it had a fighting fit Muralitharan back, Aravinda de Silva's return beefed up the middle-order, and the matches too were on wickets that played slow. Sri Lanka was a different team.

In the event, it wasn't entirely surprising that Sri Lanka recorded a trophy triumph in familiar conditions, humbling Pakistan and South Africa, no mean sides. The Lankans carried the winning momentum to the Champions Trophy; at home they are invariably tough to beat. The side also revealed it could out-think its opponent, and the introduction of off-spin early on against Australia was a brilliant ploy. Here, the input from coach Dav Whatmore, as canny as they come, has to be acknowledged. Yes, both India and Sri Lanka will be gunning for more glory in the crucial days ahead. So too would Sourav Ganguly and Sanath Jayasuriya.