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January 26, 2007
Favourite is a position the Indian cricket team does not like being in, but by resting four key players for the third ODI against West Indies at Chennai tomorrow, the management has sent the message across that they're confident of clinching the series. Sourav Ganguly, Zaheer Khan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh will not play - Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa will open - and there is the likelihood that Yuvraj Singh will return after a lengthy injury lay-off.
Early last year, India were nearing the point where their World cup aspirations seemed quite grounded. As it stands now, matters have changed a little. Both Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid have clearly identified batting as the area of concern.
Tomorrow's match holds plenty for India's young guns, namely Gambhir, Uthappa, and Suresh Raina, back in the side after a disastrous past few months that have yielded just 183 runs at 15.25 from 15 games. In recent times, Gambhir has shown few signs of being 25 and saddled with the pressure of filling Sachin Tendulkar's shoes, and his innings at Nagpur was one to derive positives from. With Virender Sehwag struggling, India needs a leadoff man with unmistakable aggressive intent, and Gambhir and Uthappa - riding on a successful Ranji Trophy season - must prove that they can do the job. Dinesh Karthik gets the chance to impress behind the stumps, and his batting performances recently have shown he's got the stomach for a fight. Yuvraj had a lengthy stint in the nets, and looked good. He's been analysed by the medical staff, and Dravid sounded confident when talking of his chances. His form is crucial to India's World Cup chances, and flexibility in the field here will be a boon.
Every team has its flaws - just ask the English - but India's bowling, for so long the flaw, has been its biggest success recently. Though it took a hiding at Nagpur, the bowling came up trumps defending a low total at Cuttack, and the composition at Chennai will include the spin combo of the wily veteran, Anil Kumble, and Ramesh Powar, who marked his return to the side with three wickets in the last game. Ajit Agarkar seems to have found himself a nice groove in which to bowl, but to say that he is the leader of the pack is premature. That leaves Sreesanth as the potential front man, but he will first need to up his tally in the shorter version of the game before assuming that responsibility. Though he was not present today, Irfan Pathan, in the wickets during Baroda's Ranji Trophy semi-final loss to Mumbai, may join the side in time for the match. If he plays, Pathan will fill the vital allrounder slot and add balance to the team.
Brian Lara didn't offer any hint of a change to the West Indies composition, but if he does return, then Devon Smith will be the man to make room at No.3. Smith looked uneasy at Cuttack, and its not all that hard to envision Lendl Simmons, who impressed with a responsible 70 against Pakistan late last year, getting a game in his place. Jerome Taylor, so deadly in the ICC Champions Trophy and at home against India in the summer, has yet to hit his straps on this tour but will retain his place.
The pitch at the MA Chidambaram Stadium looks a batting paradise. It's hard, baked, and there is but a smattering of green on the edges. As Dravid himself put it, with a smile, "It's a good wicket for batting. I wouldn't want to bowl too much spin out there, it's that kind of track. We should have a good-scoring game." Both India and West Indies have had to adjust to two very contrasting pitches in the series. Where Nagpur hosted a record-breaking run feast, Cuttack was a low-scoring affair on a dust bowl with variable bounce. To Lara, however, this was not a deterrent. "Its tough, but it's what you want. You don't want to be able to walk out there, close your eyes, and just bat, or go out and see a minefield," he said.
Moreover, Lara saw an opportunity to employ spin in the middle overs. "We have the likes of Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels, two guys who've done a very good job over the years for us in the middle overs. We are going to be depending on them a lot. We also have a few medium pacers, guys who get the ball to move about, roll their fingers over the seam, so I think we have what's necessary to perform well and we have what's necessary to ensure we get back into the series," he said.
Will inexperience matter? That remains to be seen, but given the confident nature exuded by Dravid and Lara when assessing their respective sides, you can be certain of one heck of a fight tomorrow.
India 1 Robin Uthappa, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Sachin Tendulkar, 4 Rahul Dravid, 5 Yuvraj Singh, 6 Dinesh Karthik, 7 Suresh Raina, 8 Ajit Agarkar, 9 Ramesh Powar, 10 Anil Kumble, 11 Sreesanth.
West Indies 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 3 Brian Lara (if fit), 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Dwayne Bravo, 6 Runako Morton, 7 Dwayne Smith, 8 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 9 Ian Bradshaw, 10 Daren Powell, 11 Jerome Taylor.
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