The final of Zimbabwe's first triangular tournament takes place tomorrow, with the home side, demoralised by injuries and controversy off the field, out of it. Visiting teams India and West Indies face each other at Harare Sports Club.
India are strong favourites to win the trophy after their clean sweep of all four first-round matches. Although West Indies have perhaps shown the best batting form of the three teams on view, India have been by far the most impressive team all-round, winning all their matches in reasonable comfort. Their bowling and fielding alike have been superior to anything the opposition has been able to offer.
West Indies go into the match severely handicapped by the loss through a stress fracture in the foot of Cameron Cuffy, their most consistent bowler. In their most recent match Mervyn Dillon took over Cuffy's mantle with reasonable success, and West Indies will be looking to him as the backbone of their attack. The other bowlers, except for the gentle off-breaks of captain Carl Hooper, have been erratic and provided the opposing batsmen with little to worry about. Their attack has lacked the ability to apply consistent pressure at both ends.
India, on the other hand, have been well served by their seamers, and Ashish Nehra continues to prove himself as their find of the tour. The other seamers have backed him up adequately and no doubt Harbhajan Singh will play in the final to add a new dimension of spin bowling that their opponents cannot match.
The West Indian batting has done well, although not well enough to overcome the inadequacies of their bowlers against India. On Wednesday they were perhaps unable to appreciate their good fortune in being put in to bat on a superb batting pitch, and scored a little too slowly to set the sort of target they should have been aiming for.
Carl Hooper would do well to think of promoting himself, with his great experience and powerful bat, to number four should the situation warrant it. He came in too late on Wednesday to take full advantage of a promising situation that required quick runs. Chris Gayle has perhaps looked the best of the top three, but has a tendency to get himself out when apparently on the verge of great deeds.
Ridley Jacobs, and the team as a whole, will probably not be unduly distracted by his ban. Match referee Denis Lindsay presumably did not ban him from playing in this final because of the disruptive effect it would have had on the whole team to lose their wicket-keeper without an adequate replacement being available. He too may well warrant promotion in the right situation, as he rarely fails with the bat when runs are urgently needed. The quieter contributions of Shivnarine Chanderpaul should not be overlooked, but in the one-day game he appears more as a steadier of the innings than a powerful attacking weapon.
India's batting line-up, such an awesome powerhouse on their own soil, has not adjusted fully to local conditions but, except in the Second Test Match, they have proved adequate for the job. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly have opened very well in the one-day tournament, and West Indies will need to separate them early.
Rahul Dravid has shown his ability to play the appropriate game in any situation, but so competently has the top order performed that he has not really been stretched so far this tournament. VVS Laxman has been passed fit again for the final, so the Indian batting will be at full strength. Manager Chetan Chouhan confirms that his players are all fit and the final side will be chosen from 13, with Dinesh Mongia and Ajit Agarkar omitted.
As far as fielding is concerned, India have the definite edge here. They have improved remarkably since John Wright took over as coach, while West Indies have been erratic at times. West Indian manager Ricky Skerritt says that his available players, like India, are all fit, including Corey Collymore who had to miss Wednesday's match, but they have not yet narrowed down the selection.
The wild card at Harare Sports Club is always the pitch. Losing the toss in their first match against India on a damp pitch condemned Zimbabwe to likely defeat, and should West Indies have similar good fortune tomorrow, anything could happen. But no doubt the new groundsman will have learnt his lesson and will ensure that he provides a track every bit as good as it was on Wednesday. The team winning the toss then would be well advised to bat first.
Being one-day cricket, anything could happen and West Indies certainly cannot be written off. If they play above themselves, or if India have the off day that happens to even the best of teams sometimes, there could be an upset, but it would be an injustice, for India have twice beaten West Indies so far. They have been the outstanding team of the tournament and deserve to win the trophy tomorrow.