What India needs is self-belief

I WONDER sometimes if we as a nation allow ourselves to get carried away by the glitter of hype and expectation; as if the dreary reality of everyday life makes us create larger-than-life characters out of small, simple beings. Our movies are like that and the whole design and fashion industry is like that. But we never seem to tire of it and so another beauty queen will come along promising things she is not going to do. I fear that, to some extent, we let this happen with our cricket team as well.

And so, like a serial on a perennial re-run, the story of expectations gets built up again. Will India win away at last? Will the monkey finally jump off our back? This team has a lot going for it but that is not a new thought. A dispassionate analysis would suggest that the home advantage for the West Indies is big but that India should start favourites. Even that has happened before without leading to victory. My fear is that, sadly, we are waiting for the monkey to jump off rather than trying to throw him down. It is rare that things happen unless you make them happen.

There are two matches that are played everytime two teams line up against each other. One is played on the ground. That is what you see, and we talk about and there India are very often evenly matched. There is another game taking place and that is in the mind of the twenty-two players involved and I am not sure the contest is very even there. The day it does, India will be the team to watch out for.

Part of the answer to that can be obtained from India's mind set in the lead-up. India must believe they are favourites to win; they must look at the line-up man vs man, team vs team and go into the contest aware that they are the superior force. There is a thin line that divides confidence from arrogance but it is better to err towards arrogance than towards lower self-esteem.

The West Indies are in decline today and have been so for a long time now. At no time in history has their bowling been more toothless. The fear in the opposition camp does not exist now and when the fear goes out of the mind it goes out of the body. With Mervyn Dillon, a simple hardworking bowler rather than a gale of destruction, leading the attack, and a succession of big bodies hurling fairly gentle stuff alongside, a batting side must fancy its chances. And with the tracks getting slower and lower with every tour, the perfume ball is now part of folklore. Indeed, in a cruel twist of fate, it is now the opposition that sometimes searches for the nostrils aware that there will be little retaliation. It is amazing, and humbling, to see how the world goes round.

The West Indies can bat well though and unlike in the bowling, there is pedigree in the batting. Chris Gayle, Carl Hooper and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are very capable players, each in his own style, and there is always the spectre of Brian Lara looming. A genius whose place in cricket's all-time greats is threatened only by his own fragility, he alone in this team can rise above the mediocrity that cloaks, even throttles, it. But India must be aware that even Lara at his best, like he was in Sri Lanka, is sometimes not good enough. Having said that, India do not possess a Muralitharan who can go through the rest like a marauding rook after little pawns.

And so India must be relentless and discipline of line and length will be more crucial than occasional forays into excellence. The West Indies are not a side that can grind out the runs. If you starve them, they self-destruct and most of their victories in recent times have come against teams that have given their batsmen the room to play shots and play quickly. With three young bowlers in Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan, Indian bowling has the flair but it is the discipline of these three men that will count more. If they can do that consistently, remember this is a five-Test series and that invariably means opportunities for everyone, they will grow in stature. India's bowling will decide whether they win or not and in terms of potential, this is the best attack India have had for a very long time.

If Anil Kumble's shoulder doesn't give him further trouble, I believe he can be India's match-winner on tracks that are increasingly brown and uneven. These are his prime hunting areas and of all the countries he has visited in the last few years, he has bowled best in the West Indies where in 1997 he took 19 wickets in five Tests, two of which were badly affected by rain. It is his dream that he bowls India to a Test win overseas and with the next two tours being England and New Zealand, he must know that this is his best, maybe last, opportunity.

To do that the batsmen must give him the runs. It is now accepted all over the world that India's batsmen, like pretty objects on a mantelpiece, travel badly. The figures illustrate that well. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman between them have 18 Tests in the West Indies without a century. India would be very happy to do the simple things consistently well rather than go in quest of the difficult that only allows rare success.

Like the old game of dog and the bone, there are two sets of one on one confrontations. Indian bowling versus West Indian batting and Indian batting versus West Indian bowling. If India can even draw the first and consistently win the second, they will win the series. But for that to happen, they must believe it can happen and nobody can be sure of that yet.