India must battle complacency
As the dust settles on The Oval, ending the greatest series in recent memory, India will begin their two-Test series against Zimbabwe, starting at Bulawayo, with complacency their main concern. To expect a stiff challenge from a depleted Zimbabwe side - embroiled in a contract muddle with player unrest growing by the day - would be naïve. But history teaches India a few lessons and they will do well to remember that their record in Zimbabwe, in the four Tests, currently stands at 1-2.
The last time India began a Test series in Zimbabwe, in June 2001, there was hope for the start of a new era. The mess caused by the match-fixing scandal was slowly being cleared; Sourav Ganguly had stamped his personality on the side with an aggressive blend of captaincy; Australia had been thwarted in one of the most memorable fightbacks of all time; and India had a golden chance to win their first series outside the subcontinent in 15 years.
They overcame the challenge at Bulawayo but lost the plot in one manic session at Harare, collapsed from 197 for 3 to 234 all out, ended with a drawn series and were left to rue the what-might-have-beens. Four years on and India still haven't won a series outside the subcontinent, Ganguly's grasp on the captaincy weakens by the day and a side that once threatened to topple Australia from their perch now face grimmer realities.
Ganguly, more than anyone else, will know the importance of this series. Since producing that grace-under-fire classic at the Gabba in December 2003, he has gone 18 innings without a century, been booed out of stadiums in India and often been reduced to a bumbling novice. With Heath Streak's shin injury making him a doubtful starter, Ganguly will get a chance to face one of the weakest bowling attacks in history - Andy Blignaut, Blessing Mahwire, Keith Dabengwa and Prosper Utseya - and regain his confidence with a big score. India's top three batsmen managed centuries in the tour game at Mutare and if this power-packed batting line-up gets its act together in this series, all sorts of batting records might be in danger.
Zimbabwe are likely to hand debuts to Terrence Duffin, Sean Williams and Charles Coventry, all batsmen from Matabeleland, with the relatively experienced Brendon Taylor and Tatenda Taibu bolstering the middle order. Williams may sneak ahead of the out-of-form Hamilton Masakazda while Coventry may be thrown in at No.6. All the batsmen, though, will be wary of the curve and swing that Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan can manufacture and plonking their front foot down the crease and attempting to hit through the line could spell disaster. If they manage to survive that examination, they will probably need to contend with Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh - a test that even the world's best have flunked.
All this, though, is just part of Zimbabwe's problems. On Sunday, Zimbabwe's professional cricketers issued a statement which slammed the conduct of the board, accusing it of being "at best incompetent, and at worst, a bully", and calls for Zimbabwe's relegation from the Test fold continue from various quarters. To play cricket under such a backdrop may prove too much for this inexperienced side and Bulawayo may well live up to its name of being a 'place of slaughter'.
Zimbabwe (probable) 1 Terence Duffin, 2 Sean Williams, 3 Brendan Taylor, 4 Tatenda Taibu (capt/wkt), 5 Dion Ebrahim, 6 Charles Coventry, 7 Heath Streak (vice-capt), 8 Andy Blignaut, 9 Prosper Utseya , 10 Blessing Mahwire, 11 Keith Dabengwa.
India (probable) 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 VVS Laxman, 5 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 6 Mohammad Kaif, 7 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Anil Kumble, 10 Harbhajan Singh, 11 Zaheer Khan.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo