Our cup is already full

RAJU BHARATAN

THE Lord's series opener over with as many as three Tests to go! How tough it is to be telehooked on Test cricket when our supreme objective, following the Lord's ODI finale, is the World Cup. Well might Sunil Gavaskar maintain that a Test series is the real McKoy. Yet the public mood in India is best described as already 'one-day riveted' - following Yuveraj-Kaif's turning Lord's 'Topsy-Turvy'. It looks as if the nation just cannot wait for Sourav now to 'do a Kapil'. As if the World Cup is a flying saucer on which we have only to land the prize! "There's a lot of cricket still to be played and anything could happen in the next six months," Sourav (putting on his shirt again) had the TV savvy to observe.

Frankly it is the gruelling playing programme we have set ourselves in the build-up to the World Cup that creates cause for concern. In any future planning, it would be only 'vision' to ensure that too many Test matches do not come in the way during the six months crucially preparatory to the World Cup. This business of holding back Mohammad Kaif and Dinesh Mongia during a tour of England only pushes strapping youngsters into the atmosphere surrounding the most difficult form of the game, five-day Test cricket, just when they should be wearing 'mental blinkers' by which their focus is on the one-day game and the one-day game alone. Foresight suggested that Board President Jagmohan Dalmiya should not have pressed for a fourth Test at The Oval.

The shape in which our team mentally goes into the ICC Trophy, after four Tests running in England, is not going to be the ideal grounding for the one-day Mini World Cup. Even if it is only Zimbabwe (Saturday, September 14) and England (Sunday, September 22) we meet day-and-night first.

There is no such team as a one-day pushover in this form of cricket, as Zimbabwe taught us to our cost in the 1999 World Cup in England. As for Nasser's England, the Mini World Cup in Sri Lanka is its gripe opportunity to even the July 13 Lord's ODI score. It goes without stating that Nasser's exploratory England will leave no precious stone unturned in Sri Lanka to settle Sourav's India hash.

That Sourav's India was dead on the 326 Lord's target should be, in the end-result, weighed in the context of a similar run-chase that came unstuck in India. Remember how Sourav's India was leading 3-1 in the 'Pepsiege' of Nasser's England that was the one-day series earlier this year? Only to fall 2 tantalising runs short in the Kotla ODI. Then make a mess of chasing 256 to win at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. Thereby drawing the series (3-3) after having been in a near unassailable position to Kotla-wrap it up 4-1. Being rudely reminded of how chokingly we failed to climb that 256 Wankhede ODI peak is what makes our 326 Lord's feat an ascent to remember.

Just plot the points on our playing graph in the 165 days to come and you will get a precise idea of how we are stuck with 8 Test matches to a point of no one-day World Cup return. Right up to September 10, we are in England. By the time we get to the September 5-9 stage of The Oval Test, our thoughts, almost irrevocably, are going to be on the Mini World Cup beginning in Sri Lanka on September 12. In other words, Sourav's India would be going pell-mell to Sri Lanka, having played the scale of (five-day) cricket ill-equipping it to excel in the all-important one-day ICC Trophy there. Excel in the one multinational ODI tournament due before the World Cup. All nations set to play the World Cup in South Africa are going to Sri Lanka. While we are stuck with staid Test cricket right up to September 9 evening in England!

Fortunately this ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka is not quite the norm of one-match knockout that the Mini World Cup was in Nairobi during the first fortnight of October 2000. Here in Sri Lanka, each nation plays two ODIs. After that, winners of the two Pools meet in a knockout. It is the kind of one-day tournament that calls for a preparation idiom far removed from the 'grammar lessons' that Sourav's India would have intently absorbed, playing traditional Test cricket. Sadly, after Lord's and July 13, the Indian TV public is going to be in no mood to comprehend that switching, overnight-and-day, from Test cricket to ODI cricket is no piece of cheesecake. Remember, India has this Gavaskar habit of becoming so set in its Test ways that the Sourav feet just would not move, fluidly enough, to the dishum-dishum demands of one-day Mini World Cup cricket.

Never forget how bitterly Australian captain Steve Waugh complained about just one loss to India (on the Saturday afternoon of October 7, 2000) putting paid to his nation's Nairobi hopes of winning that Mini World Cup. What Steve then failed to add is that they lost that key match through approaching it in a state of overconfidence. When Sourav's India had put up a total of 265 for 9 from 50 overs, Steve Waugh's Kangaroos needed to look before leaping ahead. But, somehow, Steve Waugh (even with 266 needed to win) felt the game was as good as won against what the Kangaroos viewed as a jellyfish bowling and a jellyfish fielding side. Sourav's India, in fact, had looked to be down for the knockout count at 194 for 5. This was when Yuveraj Singh 'happened' with that dream 84.

Steve's assessment of Sourav & Co here was along the same lines as Geoffrey Boycott's STAR-predicting that "India are not making it" after Waugh's Australia had raised a total of 282 for 6 from 50 overs at The Oval in the June 4 Super Six opener of the 1999 World Cup in England. How India then never really recovered from losing Sachin (0), Rahul (2), Sourav (8) and Azhar (3) to sink to a netherworldly 17 for 4 is something that is World Cup history. How India's back bent even as Azhar's bat broke is a moment tele-etched in our mindset. The same Geoffrey did not quite Lord's write off India this time out. But Boycott did logically suggest that the odds were stacked against India's attaining 326. End-TV impressions are such that we now remember only the 326 Lord's milestone that India, Yuveraj and Kaif crossed. We do not like to be reminded of how our bowling and fielding had, head-droopingly, all but lost us that July 13 Lord's final as England roared away to 325 for 5 from 50 overs. Nasser Hussain, for one, felt he here had India by the collar of the shirt to be shed by Sourav only later.

Overconfidence is a fatal attitude of mind. The best of captains from Steve Waugh to Nasser Hussain know it. Yet they are observed to fall a prey to the syndrome. To the very syndrome that cost Steve Waugh that October 7, 2000 Nairobi 'play-off' vs India. Such was Steve's faith in Australia's batting depth here that fresher-skipper Sourav and his team seemed to hold no terrors even after India hit up 265 for 9. Any runs left to get during the end-chase here, Steve felt 'finisher' Bevan was always there to do the hit-and-run job. It was as Australia dipped to 169 for 6 (with super sprinter Bevan stunningly run out for 42) that Steve Waugh had reason to fear the worst.

As the Kangaroos finally fell 21 runs short of victory, Steve moaned about such a crack team as Australia having its fate, in a topnotch tournament, being sealed by the outcome of a single knockout match. The right lesson for Steve to draw from such an unexpected reverse would have been to divine that Sourav, as skipper, had this ability to get his men behind him. But Steve failed to see the writing on the ball and paid the supreme 1-2 penalty in the Test series to follow, six months later, in India.

That was then. If Sourav, as we move to September 12, complains that four Tests in England hardly mentally conditioned his team for the one-day Mini World Cup in Sri Lanka, he is going to have no takers. The setting at Lord's on July 13 should be telling Sourav that the one-day game now has time only for winners. No matter what be the Test-cricketing obstacles a team has to surmount to get there.

After that fortnight-long ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka, India play Carl Hooper's West Indies at home. No viewer is benignly going to look upon the two Tests here as an opportunity to settle that 1-2 rubber score in the West Indies.

In fact, these two five-dayers against the West Indies are going to be viewed as a 'visual hindrance' to the ODI interface - as the Test series gets going in the first week of October. It is the seven ODIs the West Indies play in India (after those two Tests) that are going to ignite the public imagination. This is just the style of contest (leading right up to November 24) that the viewer seeks as the pathfinder to the World Cup.

By the same token, the two Tests in New Zealand (as our tour of that country begins on December 4) are going to be matches the viewer wants India to get through in a hurry. The espnstar spectacle viewers here cannot wait to watch - as filling our cup to the brim - is the series of seven ODIs in New Zealand.

As this seven-match series ends at Hamilton in the small Wednesday hours of January 15, 2003, the centrestage for the World Cup is teleset. The Indian team leaves for the World Cup on January 31. After that, from Saturday, February 8, to Sunday, March 23, the world is a cup that knows no South African coloured quota as a recipe for victory. A multiracial confrontation it was that saw Kapil Dev break the Black West Indies stranglehold on the World Cup during that June 25, 1983 Saturday night without end in India. Could we hope for an Indian encore? Hope is the only four-letter word by which Sourav may swear, come February 8.