India get their groove back
When India began their Champions Trophy challenge with a relatively easy outing against Kenya at the picturesque Rose Bowl, the outlook was bleak. The forecast was for rain - and haphazard batting. When they ended their innings on a more-than-healthy 290, the rain had stayed away long enough, two batsmen had spent a not-inconsiderable time out in the middle, two had struck stirring blows, and the Indian batting machine was back in its groove.
The Kenyans had complained of a lack of international match practice before this game, but they seemed to be in perfect working order when the day began. They had done their homework, in that they kept Sourav Ganguly on the back foot early on, digging the ball in short with enthusiasm if not venom. However, they erred fatally in that they did the same with VVS Laxman. With an uncommon lack of flourish Laxman repeatedly crashed the Kenyans away with short-arm pulls. The early heebie-jeebies of the swinging, seaming ball were banished as the shots resounded off the middle of the bat.
But one of India's main concerns remained unaddressed. Virender Sehwag, asked to bat as though it were a Test match, followed the advice long enough to give John Wright hope that one of his big guns had its sights set right. But, after crackling his way to 17 - including one glorious square-cut off Martin Suji that invoked the Sehwag of old - he threw it away with a desperate charge down the pitch that was completed with a shot that was neither straight-batted nor horizontal, and had his stumps shattered.
Sehwag went early on, but it was in the middle of a sedate start, with India on 30 in the 10th over. This meant that Laxman could bat at his own pace, find the optimum gear to drive in, and at the same time not feel as though he was dragging the run rate down. This gave him the chance to forge a partnership with Ganguly that conformed to the traditional route to success in England: keep wickets in hand at the end and you can pick up 100 runs off the last 10 overs without breaking into a sweat.
Ganguly was his usual mixture of allsorts. Elegant drives through the off, energetic heaves over the infield, the odd streaky French cut, and of course, the frenetically pinched single. As the weight of runs piled up, the momentum, that elusive-yet-vital ingredient, began to build. The fielding, one of the best barometers of a team's morale, flagged as the previously athletic Kenyans discovered more and more balls not worth chasing. The bowlers found it increasingly hard to bowl to the fields set for them, and before they knew it Ganguly and Laxman had put on 161.
The great Indian charging malaise then claimed two more victims. Ganguly (90) sauntered down the pitch to Martin Suji and yorked himself, while Laxman (79) gave Steve Tikolo the charge and was stumped. By then, though, India had put themselves in a position to take the game away from Kenya. Standing tall on the foundation laid for them, Mohammad Kaif and Rahul Dravid topped off the superstructure. Kaif had a chance to show that there was more to his game than pinching quick singles and Dravid took the chance to convince the last remaining doubters that he had the game to be a star in one-dayers.
Dravid (30 off just 16 balls) and Kaif (49 from 29) hustled, bustled and ultimately bludgeoned the Kenyan attack into submission in a 77-run partnership that came from only 41 balls, and took India to 290. The match as a contest ended then and there. Sure, it was only Kenya, but the ease with which India rattled up 290, without the help of Sachin Tendulkar, meant that they have enough confidence behind them to hit the ground running against Pakistan.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be following the Indian team's progress throughout the Champions Trophy.