Should be a scorcher
Cautious and conservative in their outlook, English cricket authorities have taken to innovations like night cricket, white balls and coloured clothing rather late. In keeping with this orthodox approach, a tri-series competition was introduced in England some 20 years after it first made its debut in Australia in the immediate post-Packer period and well after other countries adopted it.
The first such tournament was held in 1998 involving Sri Lanka, South Africa and the hosts. Sri Lanka, then in the midst of their great period following their World Cup triumph in 1996, duly won the event defeating England in the final.
The competition was not held in 1999 with the World Cup in England holding centre-stage. In 2000, England won the tournament, defeating Zimbabwe in the final; the West Indies were the third team in the fray. Last year, England did not even make the final, contested between Australia and Pakistan. And yet England have been listed as favourites by the bookies for this year's competition, involving Sri Lanka and India.
Sri Lanka, despite the fact that are obviously weary at the end of their tour, are listed second favourites while the Indians, freshly arrived in England, have been adjudged as outsiders.
A close look at the squads suggests that the bookies might have got it all wrong. For, on paper, the Indians would seem to have a lot of things going in their favour. A formidable batting lineup, an attack based on seam bowling - always favourable in English conditions - and two fine spin bowlers to exploit whatever turn they can from the pitch.
Certainly, both England and Sri Lanka would be hard pressed to offer a batting line-up as attractive as the one made up by Ganguly, Tendulkar, Mongia, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Kaif and Yuvraj Singh. This array of stroke-playing batsmen looks capable of running up totals that could be well beyond the reach of both their opponents. Even granting the fact that they may be weaknesses in bowling and fielding, it would appear that the batting is so strong that it can cover up for any deficiency in other departments.
But the bookies obviously have done their cricketing homework. They are convinced that the Indian team does not do well abroad, something admitted even by coach John Wright. This is particularly so in England.
The heady days of the World Cup triumph are now almost two decades ago. The 2-0 victory in the Texaco Trophy series in 1990 is a 12-year-old story. Since then, the Indians lost rather badly in the one-day series to England in 1996 and three years later just about made it to the Super Six stage where their challenge fizzled out.
Of course, it could also be pointed out with some justification that neither England nor Sri Lanka even made the Super Six stage in the competition. But there is no denying that the overall form of both these teams is far more consistent in recent times.
Evidence of this is seen in the various one-day ratings that have Sri Lanka ahead of both India and England, who are bunched together in the middle. Few would argue against this, even after taking into account India's triumph in the rain-affected limited overs series in the West Indies.
Only some six months ago, England came back from a 1-3 deficit to draw a six-match series in India and that should stand them in very good stead for the competition that commences on Thursday. The hosts have retained most of their players, who did so well in India, and have added the experience of Alec Stewart, the flair of the in-form Ronnie Irani, the promise of James Kirtley as well as the bubbling enthusiasm of Alex Tudor.
Besides, their established stars have all been among the runs and the wickets during the season and the emphatic Test series victory over Sri Lanka should have boosted their confidence no end. Even though they will miss the injured Mark Butcher, a batting line-up that has Nasser Hussain, Nick Knight, Stewart, Graham Thorpe, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff has to be respected.
The bowling, however, may pose problems for Hussain. The injured Andy Caddick is already out of the reckoning and there are doubts about Darren Gough's availability. If the pace spearhead is not able to pass the fitness test, almost everything would depend on Matthew Hoggard, Ashley Giles, Tudor and Flintoff. In English conditions, the quartet could still prove to be a force to reckon with. Hussain, it has to be remembered, has proved to be a player's captain besides being a shrewd tactician.
The withdrawal of Muthiah Muralitharan due to injury will undoubtedly affect Sri Lanka's chances. But the prospects of Sanath Jayasuriya's team cannot be written off. In Murali's absence, the bowling does look a bit handicapped but then the experience of Chandana and Samaraweera is bound to come in handy.
It is true that the seam bowlers did not exactly come off in the Test series but then the limited overs game is very different from Test cricket and the NatWest series gives Chaminda Vaas and company the opportunity to show that they still have a trick or two up their sleeve.
The batting, even if it fell from their lofty standards in the Test series, was seen in better light than the bowling and a line-up that has the always dangerous captain, Marvan Atapattu, Russel Arnold, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Avisha Gunawardene and Romesh Kaluwitharana cannot be dismissed lightly.
However, it must be admitted that the recent form displayed by all the contestants has been rather patchy, symbolised by England losing to Wales on Monday. On the same day, the Indians went down to Kent while the Sri Lankans haven't exactly been on a winning spree on the current tour.
In my book, the strengths and weaknesses of the competing teams are clearly marked. I normally love sticking my neck out but unlike the bookies, who don't have an option anyway, I will not do so this time. The competition is too close to call. About the only prediction I will make is that it is going to be a scorcher of a NatWest series.