Saturday, October 7, 2006

Clash of champions

With eight leading teams in the fray, the much-awaited Champions Trophy, beginning today at Mohali, promises to be a cracker of a tournament. Gopal Sharma looks at the fitness and form, strengths and weaknesses of the participating nations even as he holds that India has a fair chance of going all the way.

Formidable foes for Men in Blue
Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting: Formidable foes for Men in Blue

India made an early exit from the DLF Cup tri-series tournament at Kuala Lumpur where they could register a single victory over West Indies and went down once to Australia. Prior to this, India dished out an equally dismal show going down 1-4 to West Indies. These results are anything but satisfactory as Team India prepares to launch its campaign in the biennial Champions Trophy or "Mini World Cup" that starts with the opening qualifying match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at Mohali today.

Given the current form, twice World Cup winners Australia look set to "rectify" the "anomaly" (They have never been able to lay hands on the Champions Trophy since its inception in 1998). Despite the absence of the dangerous Adam Gilchrist, inclusion of Glenn McGrath after a long lay-off and out-of-touch Ricky Ponting in Kuala Lumpur, Australia proved that they are the most formidable opponents at the moment. Performance of rookie seamer Mitchell Johnson, Michael Hussey, Stuart Clark (against India) and Brad Haddin makes one wonder at the Aussie system which keeps on churning out quality cricketers good enough to stand and deliver at the highest level of the game. In the match against India, the left-handed Johnson scalped Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan in the space of a couple of overs to convince his supporters that more would be heard of Johnson in the days to come. Great fast bowler Dennis Lillee dubbed Johnson "once-in-a-generation bowler", while Wasim Akram, the greatest left-arm seamer of his time, said Johnson was an impressive prospect.

Successful comeback by Shoaib Akhtar, increasing stature of skipper Younis Khan and form of Mohammad Yousuf, have made Pakistan a better side. The recent remarks by Shoaib that Australians — after they had won the DLF Cup after decimating West Indies in the final — are beatable cannot be dismissed as an empty boast. Seamer Mohammed Asif is a wily customer capable of troubling the best with his accuracy and swing and the consistency shown by peerless Abdul Razzaq means that Pakistan has a bowling attack capable of taking care of the best of the batting line-ups in the world. Shahid Afridi and Razzaq batting down the order are capable of changing the course of game within no time with their power-packed strokes.

The emergence of a couple of youngsters in the Sri Lankan team like Upul Tharanga, Ferveez Maharoof and Lasith Malinga coupled with the experienced Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara, domineering Muthiah Muralitharan and the ever-reliable Chaminda Vaas and their excellent fielding make Sri Lanka, joint winner in 2002, as good a team as any other in the business.

New Zealand, the 2000 edition winners, are an extremely combative one-day side. With batsmen like Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Lou Vincent, all-rounders Jacob Oram and Scott Styris and bowler like tearaway Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori, the Kiwis have the wherewithal to disturb the applecart of any team. As Lee or Shoaib, Bond is the only contemporary fast bowler capable of generating pace in excess of 150 kmph and has won so many games for the Kiwis singlehandedly.

Presence of bludgeoning Chris Gayle, skipper Brian Lara, Sarvan and Chanderpaul means the defending champions lack none of the firepower to enliven any contest. Though, the twice World Cup champions would be required to go through the qualifying matches, which should be a formality as going by the current strengths of the teams contests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh should not be more than a stroll in the park for the Lara-led team.

England may not have enjoyed much of success during the recent past in one-dayers, but any team taking them lightly would do so at their own peril. The return of skipper Andrew Flintoff after an injury-induced lay-off may prove to be the spark England need to lift their game. Flintoff’s recent experience of playing in India and impressive individual performance as a skipper would come in handy for the burly all-rounder. In Steve Harmison, they have a seamer comparable with the best in the business. South Africa-born Kevin Pietersen can be as destructive as Tendulkar or Lara. The hard-core professionals that Englishmen are, their quest for winning the maiden title would egg them on to do better and go all out for victory.

Unfortunately, India still has to grapple with a couple of pressing issues which need to be sorted out at the earliest. Whereas all other teams have a settled look and are fielding the best possible combination, Team India is still in the process of changing and chopping.

The regularity with which Irfan Pathan is being made to bat higher up the batting order sometimes even ahead of Sehwag or Dhoni is becoming monotonous. Things have come to such a pass that one wonders whether Pathan is a bowler who can bat or a batsman who can bowl. The Baroda seamer does not look half as good a bowler as he was when he broke into the Indian squad a couple of seasons ago. In fact, Pathan, in view of the ambiguity regarding his specific role in the team, looks like the biggest dilemma facing the Indian cricket establishment.

There is no scepticism regarding technical finesse, reliability and success of Rahul Dravid as a batsman. The ultimate batting technician that he is in contemporary cricket, the Karnataka batsman has done wonders for the team. Ever since he was appointed skipper, he has begun to bat with more aggression and control. But he is best suited to the middle order and the move to promote him as an opener has the potential to backfire. Team India has been served well by Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar as openers. The duo have been the most potent force behind innumerable victories. Sehwag has a proven record as an opener and it is this slot where he looks most comfortable. His recent loss of form notwithstanding, the Delhi batsman still has an enviable reputation at the international stage. The team will be served better if he is able to sort out his vulnerability while facing in-swing deliveries sooner than later and restored as an opener. Sachin Tendulkar striking his vintage form should be as reassuring to his innumerable fans as it is to Dravid and Greg Chappell. Bowling to hard-hitting Dhoni on the docile and familiar Indian pitches should be challenge to bowlers.

The silver lining, however, is the emergence of a new set of pacemen like Munaf Patel, S Sreesanth and R.P. Singh who have the capability and hunger to excel at the highest level. Performing admirably against varied opponents and under varying conditions, the young trio has held firm and played a vital role in the success achieved by the country. Regaining of form by the wiry Mumbai seamer Ajit Agarkar is no less heartening. With new-found control and accuracy, Agarkar looks the best Indian seamer on form.

Not long before, India struck a purple patch. Making mincemeat of every opposition that came its way and recorded 18 victories out of 24 matches played in the subcontinent. It was in this period when Dhoni, though briefly, got the top ODI ranking. Conditions will be similar in the month-long tournament. The joint winners of the trophy with Sri Lanka in 2002 in Colombo, the familiar home conditions should spur the hosts and galvanise them into a well-oiled machinery capable of reaching greater heights. If the strong Indian batting line-up — bolstered by the fruitful return of Sachin Tendulkar — gels well, and the bowlers maintain the same line and length as they did in Kuala Lumpur, India should be able to start the hectic season on a rousing note.

Punjabi touch

Yuvraj Singh
Yuvraj Singh

Punjab enjoys a pre-eminent position in Indian cricket. There was a time when the Indian team, at any given time, had a fair sprinkling of stars from Mumbai. After that, with the advent of Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid, focus shifted to Karnataka. Going by the number and quality of players the state has in the squad, it can be said that Punjab players’ influence in shaping Team India’s destiny in the Champions Trophy can be decisive.

While offie Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh are vital cogs in the side, the month-long Champions Trophy provides a golden opportunity for the left-handed batsman Dinesh Mongia, also an occasional left-arm bowler, to cement his place in the side.

Even if not destructive, Harbhajan Singh has been bowling well of late. Though he has failed to take wickets by the bagful, he has been a success in choking the flow of runs and building pressure on the batsmen. Playing in familiar conditions as also on home turf, Harbhajan, in the absence of Anil Kumble, would be the linchpin of the bowling attack. If he is able to get into his groove early, it would boost the chances of the hosts.

Harbhajan Singh
Harbhajan Singh

Dinesh Mongia
Dinesh Mongia

With three successive "Man of the Series" awards under his belt, swashbuckler Yuvraj Singh is bound to come good sooner than later. It was in the 2000 edition of the championship at Nairobi that Yuvraj Singh gave a glimpse of the things to come when he blitzed the mighty Australian pace attack comprising McGrath, Lee and Gillespie with an 80-ball 84. A young and fearless Yuvraj left a lasting impression and turned a star overnight. If the doughty Yuvraj, now the mainstay of the batting along with others, achieves something similar, it will spell doom for other teams.

Inducted into the team after being in the wilderness for nearly a year and a half, Mongia proved in the crucial DLF Cup match against Australia that he meant business. Even if there were murmurs that he exposed the tail-enders like Munaf Patel, Sreesanth or R.P. Singh to the strong Aussie bowling attack, Mongia deserves credit for taking his team within sniffing distance of victory. The brave batting effort came after Mongia had sent down nine overs accounting for one wicket. Having captained Punjab for quite some time now, Mongia has the knack of holding the innings together and playing a big innings. More often than not, he has led from the front. The Chandigarh player forced his way back into the Indian squad after a second successful stint with English county which saw him finish the season with a healthy 50-plus average.

Besides, the Punjab trio is agile in the field, Yuvraj being outstanding.

— G. S.