India v West Indies, 1st ODI, Nagpur January 20, 2007

First step on final lap to World Cup

The Sourav Ganguly-Gautam Gambhir opening combination will be put to test © AFP

Brian Lara and Bennett King have hammered on about "consistency", Rahul Dravid has hoped to "start winning" and all have regularly mentioned "World Cup". The tournament is two months away but both India and West Indies are about to start the final lap of their build-up. Both teams have "wrinkles to iron out" - India need some cloth for starters - and the four matches will as much be about "looking ahead" as it will be about "winning on the day".

You can expect India to tinker with their batting line-up - they've already pretty much announced their batting order. Dinesh Karthik, who's played six ODIs as a wicketkeeper, is likely to be included as a batsman; Sourav Ganguly, who hasn't figured in an ODI for close to 16 months, will open; Gautam Gambhir, a one-day tyro who last played nearly ten months ago, will partner him.

West Indies are definitely better off. There's no Ramnaresh Sarwan but the rest have been part of the mix. Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul have settled nicely at the top and the rest have been given chances to move higher up. "Almost everyone wants to bat in the top four," said King, their coach, when asked if they're likely to shuffle the line-up. "It's a good sign to see that your batsmen are eager to get in the middle as early as possible".

Lara has floated up and down, sometimes way down, the order and King suggested that it could continue here as well. "We know our plans for the World Cup but we're going to use these games to see what the reserve players can do. A couple of the guys are injured but it provides others with a chance."

A four-match series, which involves criss-crossing the breadth of India, will be demanding and neither team can afford serious injuries at this stage. Fast bowlers from both sides will mostly have to endure heart-rending shirt-fronts and the bats are likely to talk the loudest. Dravid mentioned that pitches in India were different from those in the Caribbean in that the "ball comes on to the bat better here. It turns a bit more here as well. West Indies wickets are relatively slow and remain that way through the game."

Kishore Pradhan, the curator at Nagpur, reckons "even 300 may not be enough". He reckons there'll be bounce, feels there will be early movement, but nothing untoward. The key that he inserts refuses to breach the top soil, the ball that he releases from a height, without any thrust, bounces upto knee height. It's the same pitch that's been used for international games over the last two years and India enjoyed a run-feast against Sri Lanka in October 2005. "At Nagpur the pitch is usually good for batting," said Dravid, "the outfield is fast, the straight boundaries aren't that long. Last time against Sri Lanka we made more than 300."

Close to 1000 spectators turned up to watch India at the nets today. The 'Dada Army' was represented, as was the 'Sachin Tendulkar Fan Club', which incidentally has an acting president and secretary in Nagpur. The loudest cheers, though, were reserved for Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who blasted a few tossed-up Harbhajan Singh offerings into the stands.

At the other end Lara and gang were being cheered on enthusiastically. A couple of schoolboys proudly announced that they'd sneaked in "just to see Lara". It's quite certain that this would be his last tour to India; it's also a fact that he's not tasted as much success here as he has in other countries. The series promises many intriguing sub-plots but the prospect of Lara stamping his authority, offering the Indian spectators a last glimpse of his greatness, must be the most mouth-watering.

Teams (probable)

India 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 Sourav Ganguly, 3 Rahul Dravid (capt), 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Dinesh Karthik, 6 Suresh Raina, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Ajit Agarkar, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Sreesanth

West Indies 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 3 Lendl Simmons, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Brian Lara (capt), 6 Runako Morton, 7 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 8 Dwayne Smith, 9 Dave Mohammed, 10 Ian Bradshaw, 11 Jerome Taylor.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo