January 24, 2002

Ganguly unlikely to lead India against buoyant England

If it's the MA Chidambaram Stadium at Chepauk, it is a hundred for Sachin Tendulkar. The last three Tests the little man has played here bear testimony to this. So it was no surprise to find the line doing the rounds on the eve of the third one-day international between England and India at Chennai. With the series tied 1-1 and everything to play for, there was enough leeway for the mind to wander to thoughts not directly connected to ball meeting bat. There's the charm of Nasser Hussain returning 'home' to the Madras Cricket Club (MCC). There's the excitement of a giant screen playing video at a venue for the first time in India. With all this brewing and the air thick with anticipation, came the news that Sourav Ganguly had done his hamstring in and was "most unlikely to play", in John Wright's words.

Going through a normal practice routine the Indian captain strained his hamstring and was whisked away quickly by physio Andrew Leipus. Although the Indian camp maintained that Ganguly was not ruled out, all things pointed to Ganguly sitting out the match.

Hussain and England, however, have no such problems, with everyone in the team fit and raring to go. If anything, the visitors face an embarrasment of riches. Andy Caddick, returning to the England squad for the limited overs matches, is pushing hard at the sidelines while Matthew Hoggard does his best to keep his place. Man of the match at Cuttack Paul Collingwood is keen to press on and cement his place in the side.

Then there's the fantasy ending to the fairytale that all England is hoping for - a ton for Hussain at Chennai, at the ground of the very club that he turned out for when he was just seventeen. On the eve of the clash, the MCC added a fitting touch to things when they gave Hussain a life membership to the club. Father Joe Hussain, now a coach at the Ilford Indoor School, was present and the memories must have come flooding back to him.

Old world charm apart, things are genuinely heating up at Chepauk. With Ganguly likely to miss the match, there's place for Sanjay Bangar. Opening the batting and bowling efficient seamers, Bangar is the frontrunner in the running to replace Ganguly, said coach Wright. However, he was quick to add that the all-rounder may not end up opening the batting. "Sehwag has done the job before and has had a bit of success. Can't rule out him opening the innings," said Wright. After he crashed a 70-ball ton at the top of the order against New Zealand, it would take a very cynical man to doubt Sehwag's ability as an opener.

Replacing Ganguly as a player may not pose that much of a problem to the think tank. The captaincy issue however is a much stickier one. His natural successor, vice-captain Rahul Dravid is away at South Africa getting his shoulder mended. This leaves the think tank with a choice between Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar. Not a fortnight ago, Laxman led India A to victory in the Challenger Trophy and this must stand him in good stead. Tendulkar has done the job before, for that reason it would be natural for him to come in as a stopgap. That said, Laxman, however, has simply not made enough runs in recent times and is low on confidence. Tendulkar's reluctance to lead is well documented. These two reasons, if nothing else, make it likely that the man people say 'has the best head for cricket' in India - Kumble - will lead.

So what have we here? A flat batting beauty, tickets sold out well in advance, a venue that brings out the best of India's finest, a possible captaincy change... What more could you ask for?

Just Bill Lawry droning on in his inimitable fashion, saying, "It's all happening here at Chepauk."