India's biggest battle will be in the mind

When Muttiah Muralitharan bounds up to the crease, eyes characteristically popping out, wound up like a top, releases, and the ball fizzes through the air, giving no hint of which way it will explode when it lands, there must be only one thing on the mind of the batsman standing 22 yards away: How he will respond to the question that Murali has just posed to him with that particular delivery. Unfortunately, that might just be the very last thing on the mind.

It's impossible to imagine what it must be like to face a bowler like Murali. Similarly, the mind boggles at the pressure an Indian cricketer faces every time he takes the field in circumstances such as these. Already houses have been attacked, effigies burned, crude and insensitive debates begun about what has caused this latest disaster. This, even before India have actually been knocked out of the World Cup.

The big challenge for this Indian team - for some more so than others - ahead of what might earlier have been referred to as a do-or-die match against Sri Lanka is to reduce cricket once again to just a game. For 100 overs - and it could well take all of 100 good overs of cricket to beat Sri Lanka - the eleven players who pull on the India jerseys and take the field should perhaps wind the clock back to when they first picked up bat or ball. But three men will feel the pressure the most. And it is those three who must show the way.

Sachin Tendulkar must think of Ramakant Achrekar sir, and Shardashram school and the dusty maidans of Shivaji Park in central Mumbai, where he learned to love the game. He must think of the time when, as a 12-year-old, he once went into practice 62 days on the trot, often playing more than one match a day. He must think about how well he can hit a cricket ball, not how well people think he can.

He must not think of the delectable half-century he made in the last match against Bermuda. "Has the day come when we're seriously talking about Sachin batting well against Bermuda?" one intelligent former Indian cricketer responded when it was mentioned in passing that the little man looked sharp in the last match. "When an elephant stamps on a fly, do we say 'well done, that's a great kill'?"

If Tendulkar is thinking about the repercussions that may follow an Indian loss - specifically for him, given that this country is in a permanent state of discontent over what he has achieved - the results may be disastrous. What India does not need is an edgy Tendulkar batting overcautiously, protecting his wicket and reputation at the same time. It needs an innings that will do justice to the 25515 international runs that Tendulkar will take with him to the field. It needs an innings that Tendulkar can be remembered by.

Sourav Ganguly, who has rattled off one half-century after another since his comeback, must not be thinking about whether the end of India's campaign might be a good time to gracefully leave the game. He should not be thinking of whether he can end this series on the top of India's runscorers list. He has to be thinking of the fight he put into this Indian team, of the manner in which he has reinvented himself and forced his way back into the team. His is a career where he has made things happen. Now is as good a time as any to make something happen.

Rahul Dravid must, first, lose the hangdog expression that creeps in every time the team is struggling on the field, standing at slip, where he stands chewing his nails with all the determination he brings to batting. He is not the kind of leader that makes rousing speeches in the dressing-room; no call to arms, no talk of playing like cornered tigers. But he is a leader in the manner in which he has played this game. More than once, Dravid has said that a player is not merely defined by whether he has a World Cup win to his name or not. He is right. But equally, too many good men have put in too much hard work over the last two years for this team to be remembered as one that was knocked out of the World Cup simply because it had one terrible day against Bangladesh.

Yes, these are all demands, and these are expectations. But these are not demands for victory, nor the expectations that come from thinly veiled jealousy over how much money India's cricketers make. Instead, this is a call to a skilful and talented bunch of individuals to do what they do best. It is a cry for the class of 2007 to reduce cricket to what it is really about - bat and ball. Only that can heal the soul of a game that's been thrown into torment. Only that can give India the best chance of winning and, in the event that they do not, lend strength to the calls for restraint that will inevitably follow.