July 9, 2002

The Indian juggernaut steamrolls on

The Indians are on a roll. Not since the triumphant campaign in the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985 ­ where they won all five matches - has an Indian side looked so commanding in performance. The batting and bowling have accomplished their task in unison, the fielding standards have touched a high, and Sourav Ganguly has scored a point or two in tactical matters. An assured place in the final of the competition at only the halfway mark of initial rounds is evidence of the professionalism displayed by this Indian team.


As I said in an earlier column, the only danger is that so many times India have peaked too early and raised great expectations, only to falter at the last hurdle. But somehow I cannot see it happening this time. The batting was always expected to be the trump card, but so often the famed Indian stars have not performed to potential.
Two victories over Sri Lanka, one over England and a no-result game ­ in which it is possible to argue that India were in much the stronger position ­ is the record notched up by a side that was listed thirdbest in a field of three by the bookies. This again raises comparisons with the showing in the WCC, in which India, after just having lost badly at home to England in both the Test series and the one-dayers, were rated as no-hopers.

It is not just the victories, but the manner in which they have been registered, as well as the tactical thinking and planning that has obviously gone into the approach that has attracted considerable attention. In a Test match, playing seven batsmen and four bowlers is considered a defensive option. With that sort of line-up, the outlook would tend towards a draw and not a win; it's more a let's-play-itsafe approach.

But in one-day cricket, it is possible to go in with eight batsmen (three of whom can also turn their arm over) and three bowlers and still keep winning. The Indians have proved it amply in recent times. They are playing to their strengths and continue to emerge victorious. The strategy is that a huge score can cover up for any weakness in the bowling and fielding. In this, the Indians have brought back memories of the Sri Lankan World Cup-winning squad of 1996; that side also had seven batsmen (two of whom could turn their arm over) and four bowlers.

In truth, however, it must be said that the bowling - the weaker of the two main departments - has been a revelation. In more helpful conditions than they are used to at home, the trio of seamers has proved that they are second to none. The bowling of Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar in the slog overs in the first game against England and Ashish Nehra's spell against Sri Lanka on Saturday are prime examples of the excellent work done by the medium-pacers.

Ganguly was always expected to do well in English conditions, and it is good that he is bowling more than usual. There remained the problem of Anil Kumble, but the ace spinner, after two rather uninspiring performances, brought his vast experience into view at Edgbaston on Saturday. The result is a very complete bowling line-up, and with the kind of depth available in the batting, it must be said that India are looking good and must now be favourites to beat England in the final at Lord's on July 13.

As I said in an earlier column, the only danger is that so many times India have peaked too early and raised great expectations, only to falter at the last hurdle. But somehow I cannot see it happening this time. The batting was always expected to be the trump card, but so often the famed Indian stars have not performed to potential. For once, during this tournament, they have lived up to their lofty reputation.

The advantage of having so many batsmen is that even if three of them fail, the strategy still works if the others can come good - as the Indians have proved in the NatWest series. What's more, the batsmen have erased to a great extent the theory that the Indians are poor chasers. All the victories have been achieved playing second, and it's not exactly been easy. There have been pressure-cooker situations, and each time the batsmen have come up trumps.

If the batting has performed to expectations and the bowlers have risen to the occasion, the fielding has been outstanding. The inclusion of so many youngsters has seen a greater sense of urgency in the field, and their spirit has rubbed off on the seniors too. So much so that Ganguly, never an excellent fieldsman, is now eager not to be left behind. Easily outstanding has been Yuvraj, and his joie de vivre in the field has obviously been infectious.

At the moment, everything seems to be going right for the Indians ­ including the controversial decision to play Rahul Dravid as a wicketkeeper in place of the specialist Ajay Ratra. But they would do well to keep themselves focused on the task ahead. They are still two matches to go before the final, and the Indians must maintain the momentum and show some killer instinct. At the moment, they are playing like champions, and come July 13, they should see to it that they emerge champions.