Our best chance to win a series abroad: Ganguly

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THERE is something special about West Indies cricket. The character of a West Indian, enjoying every moment of the game, strikes you instantly and this quality sets him apart. Playing positive and entertaining cricket has been a unique feature of the West Indians and thoughts centre around such greats as Frank Worrell, Gary Sobers, Viv Richards, Courtney Walsh, Clive Lloyd. The list can be pretty long.

The Caribbean charmers were known to keep the spirit of the game alive. They played to win but not at the cost of the traditions. And a series in the West Indies is rated the tour of tours because of the immense challenges that confront you from island to island.

"How will he fare against the West Indies?" was the deciding factor for coaches in the 60s and 70s when analysing their pupils. Lively pitches and hostile tracks tested the calibre of the visiting teams in the West Indies and doing well in the Caribbean was always a big task.

The West Indies maintained its supremacy until the mid-80s and then began a gradual slide which has now left many past greats disillusioned. The West Indian supporter is quite dejected with his team's performance but there is always a ray of hope that things might improve in a phased manner.

As noted commentator Tony Cozier summed it up, the West Indian decline could be linked to just one factor-lack of commitment. There is truth in the fact that there has been a distinct degeneration of the game in the islands but then there has also been a shocking dearth of talent. The West Indians have just not been able to find replacements and nothing highlights this ailment more than Carl Hooper's return to the team after having quit the game.

The West Indies may not be lying at the bottom but is quite near to being there. Defeats at the hands of Sri Lanka and Pakistan in its last two Test series have shown the team in extremely poor light. What shocked most was the West Indian surrender to Pakistan at Sharjah since the playing surface did not offer much to the bowlers.

Former greats such as Richards, Sobers, Lloyd and Michael Holding have, at different points, admitted the game is experiencing its worst period and the situation is indeed alarming. Much importance is being given to the forthcoming series against India and there is talk of a West Indian revival.

Against this background, the Indians embark upon a journey which is as important for them as any in the recent past. Nothing short of a win will satisfy the Indian fan and the expectations have grown for the simple reason that the West Indians are certainly not at their best.

"Our best chance to win a series overseas," was how the Indian captain looked at the assignment. The skipper was only speaking the mind of the team even though there was the usual note of caution too. "Can't take the West Indies lightly at all." Ganguly was right. The West Indies cannot be taken lightly at all.

The Indians have picked the best possible combination for the series with a fine balance of experience and youth. The team consists of five survivors of the 1997 series-Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and V. V. S. Laxman. "I'm happy with the team," said Ganguly.

India's last tour to the Caribbean was marked by that shattering defeat at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown when the team could not make 120 to win. "That defeat was very disappointing. Except for that loss, I think we held our own pretty well. It was one dark hour in which we lost the game; otherwise it was a decent tour for us. I think we played good cricket on that tour," said Dravid, the vice-captain for this series.

"The Indians should have won the Test at Bridgetown. My greatest disappointment," was how Tendulkar put it. The defeat still haunts him and only a win in the series ahead could provide the team the much-needed relief.

"It won't be easy," warned Kumble. "They have a good batting line-up and the experience of Hooper and Lara will help the West Indians a lot," said the veteran leg-spinner, looking forward to the tour.

Kumble too described the defeat at Bridgetown as "shattering" but wanted the team to forget the past and look ahead with a positive frame of mind. "We're a good side with some very promising youngsters. It's a wonderful experience to play along with some very talented young men and I'm sure this series would bring about a welcome change in the attitude of the team," Kumble observed.

The West Indians may not offer spinner-friendly pitches but then the last trip showed that the playing surfaces there had become slow and low. "We had been told that the pitches could be bouncy but what we encountered was very different. There was a bit of bounce at Bridgetown but nothing extraordinary. It will be good to win the series," said Kumble.

The presence of Javagal Srinath lends a lot of strength to the attack. He had to pull out of the team on arrival in the West Indies five years ago because of a shoulder injury but is geared up to take up the challenge this time. And he has a resolve too for the forthcoming series.

"I've been around for some time and what haunts me is the fact that I have not won a series overseas for the team. This time I just want to win the series. This jinx of not winning abroad has to be broken," stressed Srinath.

The speedster is determined. "I want to make sure we win this time. I think my career will be complete only if I become part of a team which wins a series overseas. That's the main objective for me on this tour. We have a team which can be developed into a matchwinning outfit provided we share the responsibilities. There is no point in thinking about the past. We have six players who have enough experience to win matches. There can't be any excuses for not winning," said Srinath.

For someone like Laxman, the tour offers a big chance to silence his detractors. "I know I am five years wiser and it's a great opportunity for me and the others to win this series. It'll be a great challenge, no doubt, but then we have the quality to pull it off this time," Laxman spoke his mind.

On the last tour, Laxman was compelled to open the innings but this time he would be batting in the middle-order. It should strengthen the batting line up and also the team's approach because the options are more. The team has picked three specialist openers in Shiv Sundar Das, Wasim Jaffer and Deep Dasgupta. It should be mentioned here that it is difficult to understand why the team management does not consider Sanjay Bangar for the position even though he has been an opener for Railways.

The National selectors cannot be faulted on the composition of the team because they have made the best use of the talent available. Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik may feel disappointed at being left out but then there was no point in pushing him if the captain had little faith in him.

The selection of Jaffer must be welcomed because the Mumbaikar was given a raw deal. Much has been said of Dasgupta's poor wicketkeeping abilities but there is no doubt that his batting stands out. He has proved himself as an opener and deserves a decent run before a judgment is made on his potential. By picking Ajay Ratra, the selectors have given the right signal to the team management that the Haryana wicketkeeper is being groomed for the spot with the World Cup in mind.

"There is competition for places and that is a good sign because it brings the best out of the players," remarked Ganguly, who is known to be popular with the young lot. "He backs the youngsters like a true leader," said one of the National selectors.

The skipper was particularly pleased by the inclusion of Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra in the team. "They are both attacking bowlers and Zaheer has made fantastic progress as a wicket-taking speedster. These two give great support to the team's chances and the fact that Srinath is available is a comforting thought. Srinath's contribution to Indian cricket has been huge and I am looking forward to some extraordinary stuff from him," said Ganguly.

For Tinu Yohannan, this will be a series worth looking forward to. The experience gained would help him immensely and he could also benefit from meeting and talking to some past great West Indians as the series progresses. "He is an asset no doubt," said Dravid on the presence of Yohannan.

The Indian team will certainly draw strength from the pair of Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. "They are the best pair in the business," said Dravid. As far as Harbhajan is concerned, he is keen to make a mark. "I want to be part of the team winning overseas. It is always a great privilege to bowl along with Anil bhai and I am looking forward to this series," Harbhajan said.

Once again, the onus will be on the seniors with Tendulkar saddled with the responsibility of scripting a dream win. He is looking forward to assume the role of a matchwinner in Test cricket. The realisation that he must finish the match may have come to him a trifle late in his career but then he alone has the calibre to achieve what he desires. The team is looking up to Tendulkar to fashion Test wins overseas and knowing the man, one is convinced that this series could prove to be quite an eventful one for India and Tendulkar.

It may not turn out to be a battle which could be decided by Tendulkar and Lara alone for their respective teams but the presence of these two superstars lends a special aura. If they can raise their game, they would certainly leave a mark on the series.