It appears as if Rahul Dravid's quest to create squad mentality might be postponed, for after West Indies' shock win last night, the Indians will be inclined to leave nothing to chance and pick their best XI, whatever that may be. At this late stage points have become irrelevant, so there is no scope for those confounding permutations that come into play in one-day tournaments. So today is a semi-final of sorts and, unless it rains, only a win will put one team into the final where a slightly bruised Sri Lanka awaits.
Even then, Sri Lanka have been the top side by far, never mind that India have run them close at times. Sri Lankan bowlers have nagged batsmen to doom and watched others self-destruct. But they were undone last night by a slow track and slow bowlers; two of their greatest allies in many home victories. It is this combination that could, once again, influence the contest. Of the 36 games played at the Premadasa since January 2000, 23 have been won by teams batting first.
Sri Lanka has been, for some time, the traditional venue of India's season-opening nightmares. The openers struggle, the middle order fumbles, and for the bowlers there is Sanath Jayasuriya. Attractive cricketers play out of character if they survive long enough, and hours later at a press conference the Indian captain offers words of disappointment and hope for the future. It has been the case for much of this tournament. And, as the Indian captain has pointed out, they have been let down by the batsmen and the elusive fifth bowler, whose mystique in Indian folklore is reaching that of the allrounder. Anil Kumble, Arjuna Ranatunga declared, would have made a difference in the ones that ran close, and the indication is that he will be the fifth bowler today. His inclusion will be beneficial in two ways: historically, newcomers have been befuddled by his bowling, and this could work him into a rhythm India will need desperately if they reach the final.
Rahul Dravid has also backed Virender Sehwag to do well. His bursts in one-dayers have steadily dwindled: since the start of last year's Asia Cup, he has scored 618 runs in 25 games at an average of 24.72. But those bursts have contributed significantly to Indian wins, by dint of runs as well as the confidence of batsmen below propelled by his innings. It is a role that Sachin Tendulkar, before him, had thrust upon him; that of the motivator and the deflator. Sehwag's fortunes are not as closely linked with the team's, but a primal blast from him could be just the jumpstart this bunch needs.
West Indies are, if anything, even more familiar with the difference one man can make, but have, in his absence, shown heartening fight. The bowlers had begun the process by discomfiting opponents, and yesterday, when Shivnarine Chanderpaul finally moved up and took the lead in every sense, an awareness of completion, as if this was what West Indies had been waiting for, arose. But it could be a short-lived sensation if West Indies, as they are prone to doing, lose themselves in their recent success because though their opponents are perhaps as mercurial, man to man they come out on top.
Rahul Bhatia is staff writer of Cricinfo