Pitfalls in `India's Road to The Finals'

NOW that the Ahmedabad Mohalinked Videocontest for the two-match grudge rubber is behind us, it is to The Lost World of Sourav and his India we return.

RAJU BHARATAN

Sachin Tendulkar - how swift to spot "length and line" now? -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

NOW that the Ahmedabad Mohalinked Videocontest for the two-match grudge rubber is behind us, it is to The Lost World of Sourav and his India we return. As Ricky's Australia joins Stephen's New Zealand in the triangular trial of strength. If Sourav was under pressure to deliver in the two Tests gone by, he is under far greater public compulsion, now, to even World Cup scores with Australia! That means the mob in India is proceeding on the facile assumption that Sourav's team, come what may, would be overcoming New Zealand's one-day pretensions. On `India's Road to The Finals'.

The way Stephen Fleming's New Zealand held firm in the Ahmedabad Test is a pointer that Sourav & Co have to perform at their absolute peak to be able to one-day marginalise the Kiwis here and now. Sourav, as the bandleader facing the music, thus carries the burden of unprecedented expectations. In the sense that the one-day Indian viewership is, already, envisioning nothing save a TVS Cup-clinching rematch of India vs Australia, following that euphoric World Cup final! That time we won 8 World Cup matches in a row. So that the nation somehow forgave Sourav and his lads their final failure to put it across Ricky's Australia in the March 23 Wanderers decider. But the October 23-starting tournament, now, is only a triangular. So that there is no way India's viewing millions are going to Sourav-settle for anything less than the TVS Cup. India vs Australia it simply has to be in the final and the Kapil Devil take the hindmost — Q.E.D.

`Result, Instant Result' is what is now relentlessly expected from Our Men in Blue enjoying a scale of TVisibility putting them on a prime `spot' pedestal. A pedestal from which a fall in grace carries consequences rather frightening to visualise. Never before was cricketing the kind of cult it is in India today. Not even when Kapil Dev and his Injun braves 1983-lifted the World Cup. Lifted it so Lord's high as for the West Indies' Malcolm Marshall — for one — to find himself reduced to tears at the demeaningly diminishing sight. Each time Vivian Richards came to India to look Neena Gupta up and down (after that June 25, 1983 happening), he wanted a precise balance sheet of how much booty each one of our neo heroes had helped themselves to — digging deep into the World Cup.

Did India feel its March 23, 2003 loss (in a World Cup final) even more than did Supercat Clive Lloyd's West Indies on June 25, 1983? We certainly felt totally deflated. As for Clive Lloyd & his malevolent men, they had, for their vainglorious part, presumed the World Cup to be theirs — for a hat-tricky lifting — as India came to be shot out for 183. How `tricky' that `hat' passing proved to be is by now Indian cricket lore. True, Clive Lloyd and his head-hunters did return to India to black sweep (5-0) Kapil Dev's team inside the same shattering 1983 frame. To no truly avenged feeling though — back home in the Caribbean. For the World Cup lost is the World Cup lost. First Clive Lloyd, then Sourav Ganguly made this traumatising discovery in a 20-year span.

Why is it now imperative for Sourav's India to make it to the triangular final and nail Australia's Ricky colours to the mast? On what basis do we take it for granted that it would be Australia, and only Australia, in the TVS triangular final? What if it is India vs New Zealand? An eventuality no one in the world even dare contemplate? What then about the photo-finishing post, in India, being a rundown between New Zealand and Australia? Perish the thought! As a nation, we love to view any such development, for now, as but a `remote' possibility! We viewers, somehow, choose to see only what we want to see — an India-Australia finale. So as to be able, somehow, to Sourav-savour India as Australia's vanquisher at least this time out. No Ma Rithambara DD-around to pull down Sourav's India from the lofty Wanderers summit to which we had, on March 23, fondly raised our huddling-cuddling men.

If it is indeed going to be an India-Australia final, I pertinently quote Steve Waugh on the kind of mood into which Sourav & Co have to get to destabilise the World Champions. "India is a team on the upward trend and, to me, on course for a final showdown with the Aussies," wrote Steve then. "They have a genuine chance to win their second World Cup because of Tendulkar's form and that of their quick bowlers. The latter factor is surely a pleasant surprise. Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra seem to be revelling on wickets that offer swing and bounce. It is all about peaking at the right time. This Indian batting line-up is capable of chasing any total."

That such a 360 runs' chase by India just did not Steve-happen, in the final countdown, is the tragedy of Sourav and his men's losing poise during the `one-day' that mattered. Javagal Srinath took it so much to heart that he lost all urgent urge to repair his injured knee. Where Zaheer Khan was playing in his first such glitzy final, Javagal Srinath was into his third World Cup. By the time match-winner Ashish Nehra came into the final Wanderers picture with his dicky legs, the contest was as good as over. First Zaheer, next Srinath, had seen to that. Sachin, cataclysmically carrying that hand injury yet again to the middle, administered the clincher with that pre-decided shot he played.

How did Glenn McGrath view Sachin, high up there and falling like a ripe apple into his Aussie hands? "When the Indians came in to bat," wrote Glenn McGrath, "we knew Sachin Tendulkar would come hard at us. When I bowled a wide ball, Sachin pulled rather than cut it. This was a sign that he was playing premeditated shots. The next ball was a little quicker from me and it got big on Sachin as he played a premeditated shot. When the ball went up in the air, I was the only person under the ball. Because everyone knew that I wanted that wicket to be mine."

Sourav Ganguly - could his India again ease out New Zealand, World Cup style? -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

That Sachin attempted the shot because his hand injury made him desperate to narrow down Australia's 359 total; that Ashish hadn't a leg to stand upon where it came to the ultimate Indian effort; that `Javagalling' in the extreme proved the line and length pitched by our most seasoned quickie (10-0-87-0); that Zaheer (7-0-67-0) chose to sledge rather than find the edge — is the sum total of India's 2003 World Cup undoing. Have we learnt from our surcharged follies? Only an India-Australia final, now, would tell. But to think of the two, India and Australia, as already in the triangular final is to play yet another premeditated shot, isn't it? For such a dream final to come true, Zaheer Khan needs to produce the kind of blistering spell he did late during the second evening of the Ahmedabad Test. In a five-day Test match, we saw Zaheer totally lose steam after that strike-launch, reducing New Zealand to 17 for 3. In a one-day 50-over India-Australia interface, such a fiercely fast showing would virtually determine the fate of the match.

The task is not going to be easy, given the Indian heat and dust. But we could not, now, very well complain about our own conditions — as about those green wickets in New Zealand — could we? Look at it how you will, Sourav and his team face a challenge at home that is going to be viewed as a mere extension of the style and substance the Team Samsung brought to overcoming New Zealand in the World Cup. To go riproaring into the final. There to catch a Tartar in the ultra-Ugly Aussie. `Souravspeak', during the World Cup, should be revealing in the present setting. A setting conceivably pitting India against Australia in the final one-day.

Where Sourav then sadly erred, as we completed a record 7 World Cup wins in a row (the last of them, significantly, against Stephen's New Zealand), was in the way he reacted to India's being virtually in the Wanderers final. "To be very honest," observed Sourav at such an all-determinant stage, "we would like to meet Sri Lanka in the final." This gave away the show to Ricky's Australia. What prompted Sourav to give public utterance to such a negative trend of thought passes comprehension. For we had, just then, beaten New Zealand with flair — only minnows Kenya stood in the semifinal way of our meeting Australia for the World Cup. As Sourav revealed such `withdrawal symptoms', Ricky Ponting instantly sensed that the Indian captain strode in mortal fear of the final outcome. Australia needed no further fillip to land the final punch.

Maybe Sourav was only doing some loud thinking when he wished it would be Sri Lanka rather than Australia. But such loud thinking proved fatal on the day of reckoning. I dwell upon this because Sourav, as a hustler-bustler, otherwise led India with vim and vitality. From that February 15 boomerang point — of India's 9-wicket league loss to Australia at Centurion. India was a team transformed after the public lashing Sourav and his men, resultantly received back home. For all that, the Kangaroo is our bugbear still. Indeed we have to start getting the measure of Ricky and his men from this October 26 Sunday afternoon itself. A Sunday-and-nighter finding us face to face with Australia filling our World Cup to the brim. Sourav would be expecting no quarter. Ricky would be giving none.

Self-confidence is half the battle in cricket. India's new script should be so written as to make the most of Rahul's emerging, at long last, as the exemplary strike rotator. How a World Cup missed infused fresh thinking into even our vintaging performers! It had Venkatsai Laxman (out there at the Motera) articulating the full array of his shots, during his knocks (64 & 44) in the long-drawn Ahmedabad Test. It was as if VVS was trendily taking up from where he had Irani Cup left off with 99. Stung obviously by criticism of Laxman's having proved his own worst World Cupless enemy.

His own enemy by studiedly opting to eschew all those shots VVS played as one to the Laxmanor born. Laxman's problem is that everyone except VVS is convinced that he is a world-beater. The best part of the Ahmedabad Test was that it opened up both Laxman and Rahul (222 & 73). That we still failed to win the first Test is the rub of `the brown'. How our own pitches defeat us in our Test objective! Yet the supreme Sourav test is now. As Ricky's Australia throws its prided baggy green cap into the triangular TVS ring.