Blue brigade on the backfoot

Updated: Dec 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
This is a quadrennial ritual, with the years in between spent preparing for it with more debates and discussions on Indias chances at the next World Cup of cricket, than whether the country should sign a nuclear deal. The Board, the pundits and the media though I cannot make out the difference between the last two now comprising more former players and failed players than the old-fashioned reporters journalism knew, will over the next few weeks put any number of views to decide on Indias chances.

If you asked me that question on a golf course, I would retort, Who cares But it seems a billion people do and you cannot avoid a question that a billion people have an opinion on. More so, when that same question sells cricketers, who in turn are selling hair oil to the balding, combs to the bald, hairpins to those tearing their hair and handkerchiefs to those wanting to weep, and God alone what else besides plasma TV sets, air tickets, holidays in the Caribbean, cars, motorbikes, credit cards, mobile phones and so on.

Talking of current form, the rain saved us against the Sri Lankans before we got hammered by the West Indians in West Indies. Just as the wounds were healing with a sensational win in the Test series, the South Africans heaped on us another humiliation in another one-day series. Once again we won a historic Test match and started dreaming about the World Cup. A nation in contradiction plays its cricket the same way. We win Test matches, when we ought to be winning one-day internationals, and one-day internationals when we ought to be winning Test matches.

Expect the unexpected from the Indian team. Talking of chances, the best in the absence of a genuine all-rounder would be a mix of seven batsmen, six bowlers and a wicketkeeper.

India has one of the finest batting line-ups. In the past Dravid and Tendulkar have clicked exceedingly well at the World Cup. So, one can only hope that the duo alongside the hopelessly out-of-form Sehwag, currently injured Yuvraj Singh and sometimes-in-sometimes-out Mohd Kaif will fire at the right time. Will Ganguly be in or out is a million dollar question, but he should be on the plane to the West Indies.

That would make five batsmen and the sixth should be VVS Laxman, but the luckless Laxman could be bypassed by either Gautam Gambhir or Robin Uthappa. Irfan Pathan, the finest find in the period between the upcoming and the previous World Cups, is already in a crisis having been sent back from South Africa, and will need his iron will to come fighting in time for the World Cup. Zaheer Khan, who lost India the 2003 World Cup in the first over, is back from the wilderness, while in Sreesanth India have a spanking new spunky paceman, not afraid to use the long handle.

Contenders for other pacemen slots would be Munaf Patel, VRV Singh, Lakshmipathy Balaji, and possibly the 18-year-old Ishant Sharma, who was first asked to join the Indians in South Africa and then cruelly held back. No guesses on the spinners Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble.

A THROWBACK.

For me, there was only one team the team of 1983. It was a TEAM, not a collection of superstars like we have had since. Those guys in 83 contributed bits and pieces and sometimes an extra bit like Kapil Dev did against Zimbabwe after being 17 for five. But mostly it was a group and not single match winners, who did the trick. Our heroes then were Jimmy Amarnath, who had a great collection of red handkerchiefs peeping out of his pockets; we had a Madan Lal, often known for falling over the wicket trying to hook but he did get us crucial wickets; we had a Roger Binny, whose stately walk had the grace of a John Abraham but he ambled well enough to emerge the champion wicket-taker in 1983; and we had a Kirti Azad, who bowled superbly when we thought he might contribute with the bat. And yes, we had captain Kapil Dev, who only wanted his team to score runs, take wickets and win matches. No winning chants, no huddles, no laptops, no analysts, no fancy physios and trainers. Just plain Haryanvi pluck.

Now, we only have superstars and no all-rounders. We have a Sehwag, whose run of scores looks like it has been re-written in a binary code;we have a Tendulkar whom the next seven generations will not forget but the present one cant remember when he last won us a match; we have a Dhoni, whose each innings sends the entire population of Ranchi and Patna, besides marketing managers of all multinational companies, into raptures; we have a Dravid, who was a nations darling before he became the captain and once he did, we began asking why and started missing Ganguly.

Ah, yes Ganguly, the same one, who we cannot decide whether he is backed by Dalmiya or Pawar, but cannot help admiring for saying all the wrong things at the wrong time and yet making a comeback.

WHAT OF THE OTHERS IN 2007

The front-runners will be Australia, who have proven themselves as the most consistent side in all forms of cricket. The Ricky Ponting-led bunch of warriors stands on the threshold of achieving what even the once invincible West Indies failed to do win the World Cup three times in a row.

India, West Indies, Sri Lanka , Pakistan and South Africa are all capable of beating the best on their day, but they also have an element of unpredictability, which seldom bogs down the Australians, who even on their worst day manage to scrape through. This entire lot plus a couple of other teams should make it to the Super Eight, but the real fight will be for the three semi-final berths I am assuming one goes to Australia and subsequently the finals.

Playing at home, West Indian fans will be hoping the Calypsos, with Brian Lara at the helm, turn this into their home party, but they are also a temperamental lot and there lies the danger. Lanka have the potential in the form of Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene to bowlers like Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. Pakistan suffered a big setback with the Shoaib Akhtar episode, but they have the best natural talent and in Inzamam and Mohammed Yousuf they have two of the finest players in the world.

South Africans are a fragile lot, but if Jacques Kallis fires with the bat and Shaun Pollock with the ball and the other bowlers dont bowl like millionaires, they can be among the contenders. The English will be a demoralised lot after the hammering in the Ashes series, but they are a fairly professional one-day side, who need to find their confidence. The Kiwis have the talent, but would require more than one or two players to make it a winning combination.