Pitched battle in the offing
For all practical purposes the Champions Trophy will finally get under way at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on Saturday. Brian Lara's West Indies will be battling an in-form Sri Lankan side for the right to not face Australia in the next round of the Champions Trophy. With all due respect to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, they haven't exactly stretched the qualifiers in the early stages, and it is from here on that the going gets tough.
For West Indies, it's vital that the tough get going. Chris Gayle is on fire, and Lara looked in sublime touch for the few minutes that he batted against Zimbabwe. But West Indies are still heavily dependent on these two, if they're in a crunch situation. The likes of Wavell Hinds and Runako Morton have shown a propensity to fold meekly once the big guns are silenced, but Lara strongly opposed the suggestion that his team was over-dependent on one or two players.
"We're not over-dependent on anyone. Recently in the Caribbean it was Sarwan who controlled the series," said Lara on the eve of the match against Sri Lanka. "We have the likes of Chanderpaul and Bravo, a good mix of people. It's always very important that the first two guys out in the middle stabilise things and make sure we don't lose too many wickets. A setback troubles any team. Most times when a side struggles their top four batsmen have not performed."
That might well ring true, but it would be untrue to totally deny how dependent West Indies are on Lara and Gayle. Lara did agree that a move was on to clearly delineate roles for different players. "We have stressed the importance of each person playing a role. We've moved away from names and wanting a particular name to play in West Indies cricket," he said. "We need people to fulfil the various roles we have developed and the guys are all aware of the different roles. We have a very good plan and we're still improving."
But when the lights come on, and the glare is at its harshest, some people lift themselves and others look for cover. Lara has always been the sort to relish a pitched battle, and the manner in which he handles Muttiah Muralitharan will be crucial. If he can set the tone with a strident innings, others less gifted might be able to chip in and build around him. "It's been great over the years," Lara said of his battles with Muralitharan. "We've had some good contests - some I've won and some he's won. We've really enjoyed playing against each other. And having Murali as a team-mate in the World Series was excellent. We've got a very good friendship and that will always continue even though there's a fierce battle between us. At the end of the day he's a world class bowler. On his day he can get any batsman out. I've been lucky to have batted well against him and this is another opportunity, and it's not going to be an easy test. It's not so important who wins the battle between Murali and Lara, what's important is who wins the battle between West Indies and Sri Lanka."
Well, the winner of that battle will have earned the right to play in Group B, comprising South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan. That means staying away from those big bad Aussies, for a while, at least. "We'd like to win tomorrow. So obviously the preference would be Group A," Lara admitted. "In a tournament like this no team wants to have to pick themselves up and dissect a loss. We play every single game to win. If things don't work out then we have to look at the opposition which may be Australia, India and England. We just want to win each and every single game."
Tom Moody, when asked the same question, was a touch less candid than Lara, in saying. "At this stage I don't personally have a huge preference. To win a tournament like this you need to be prepared to beat every team in the tournament. If you start hedging your bets and think I'd rather be here because I want to keep away from this team or that you're defeated before you even enter the contest," he said. "Our approach is - let's win this game of cricket that we've got before us. Australia are comfortably the favourites. The pundits would be thinking that's the group to steer away from. But, why can't we beat Australia? They're a good side but they're beatable." Yes, but no-one is in any hurry to find out just how beatable Australia are.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo