India waits with bated breath
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Hundreds of millions will spend a sleepless Friday night before their television sets as the team that could be dubbed 'commercial favourites' fights to stay alive in a World Cup that seems ages old but has in fact barely begun. "What happens to India if they lose?" Rahul Dravid was asked the day before. "We're not even thinking about the possibility," he replied. Much easier said than done.
No match in the first round of this tournament has been invested with this much significance. Not even death puts things into perspective for the Indian fan or the media. Besides, the financial viability of the tournament for a huge range of enterprises rides on Indian success, a point the players are not allowed to forget for a moment. The pressure on Dravid's team is much more than merely that of their increasingly well-oiled opponents.
The greatest folly in cricket is prediction-making. It can thus merely be mentioned that word is that the Indian team, record victory against Bermuda notwithstanding, is not particularly high on morale. Some players are said to have been aloof, some have become despondent, and they are quite without the certain united force that successful sides exude.
Yet it is also a truism of sport that all it takes is victory to turn things around. To do that, the batting must have to lead the way for, though it boasts an impressive body of achievement, the story is familiar under duress or in testing conditions, and the batsmen are likely to encounter both: the track for the game has not been used in the tournament, and the groundsman expects from it bounce and early seam movement. Of particular concern to the think-tank has been the inordinate number of dot balls played out, most glaring in the loss against Bangladesh, a point they must rectify if they are to negotiate difficult passages without coming to a complete halt.
Team selection is not easy. As far as one can see, Harbhajan Singh is likely to be back, probably in place of Anil Kumble, unreadable to Bermudians on Monday but historically ineffective against Sri Lanka - he concedes 51 runs per wicket against them and has failed to pick up a single wicket in his last four matches. The question is whether to retain faith in Robin Uthappa, who has failed in the last two matches, or include Irfan Pathan for balance. And would Sreesanth prove to be a more tempting matchwinning option than Ajit Agarkar?
Sri Lanka, by contrast, have little reason to tinker, even if it means that a big-match player such as Marvan Atapattu must sit out. It is a side brimming with belief. The proof has been in their play but, just in case it was not emphatic enough, their captain Mahela Jayawardene also talked the talk. "Bangladesh did not meekly surrender to us," he asserted after Wednesday's wholesome victory, "we made them surrender." And if India "showed us a few things when we were in India, it is now our turn to show them." Few things excite the smaller nations of the sub-continent than slaying the big beast.
Sri Lanka look complete. The batting has firepower at the top and below, and solidity in the centre. The bowling possesses nagging seam, a number of capable support acts, and two freaks of nature. The fielding is sharp. They are thoroughly prepared and exceptionally led. All of this can also mean nothing in the context of a one-day match.
For the first time in this leg a full house is anticipated at the Queen's Park Oval. Nobody could have asked for a more keenly-awaited encounter.
India (likely) 1 Sourav Ganguly, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Irfan Pathan, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Rahul Dravid (capt), 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Ajit Agarkar, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Munaf Patel
Sri Lanka (likely) 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Sanath Jayasuriya, 3 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 4 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 5 Chamara Silva, 6 Russel Arnold, 7 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Farveez Maharoof, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Lasith Malinga
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04