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March 21, 2000


Duel in the Desert

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India start as favourites

With the onset of summer, temperatures are just beginning to rise in the tiny emirate of Sharjah, but cricket fever has already reached its peak in the Gulf with a rejuvenated India set to take on South Africa on Wednesday in the inaugural match of the tri-nation Coca Cola championship for which arch rivals Pakistan is the third team.

Fresh from a 3-2 triumph over the Proteas in the one-day series at home, the Indian team, led by Sourav Ganguly, seems to have undergone a metamorphosis since the nightmarish tour of Australia and the 2-0 whitewash in Tests by the South Africans, under Sachin Tendulkar.

With Tendulkar quitting captaincy after the Test series rout against the South Africans, the first on home soil in 13 years, Ganguly has managed to galvanise the team and put it in winning mode, something the players had forgotten in the past few months.

Quite on the verge of being written off even by their dedicated fans, the Indians staged a turnaround to come to Sharjah as favourites, especially with Pakistan having an unenviable performance lately, losing both the Test and one-day series to Sri Lanka on home turf.

The way Ganguly led his side in the just-concluded one-dayers has injected virus into the laptop strategy of South African coach Graham Ford, who must now be looking for new inputs for insights into the Indians.

However, skipper Hansie Cronje can take solace from his previous experience of being champions in Sharjah, beating India in the final and winning all the games in 1996, the only occasion the Proteas played in the emirate. Cronje may be missing the services of 'White Lightning' Allan Donald, Daryll Cullinan and Jonty Rhodes, but he still has an indefatigable side that can keep his rivals on the edge all through the championship.

During the one-day series in India, the South Africas were plagued by injuries which afflicted strike bowlers Mornantau Hayward and Henry Williams and all-rounder Lance Klusener, the man-of-the-match in the last outing at Nagpur, which saw an epic chase by Indians who scored 310 runs only to lose by ten runs.

The best part of India's performance in the home series was that the team did not rely solely on individual heroics. The batsmen got their act together and got runs in tons, much to the discomfiture of the Proteas for whom no total looked safe. The Indians chased 301 and 282 in two of the matches to stamp their authority, with Ganguly leading by example. Man-of-the-series Tendulkar, Ajay Jadeja, Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Azharuddin also got going when required.

But the team needs to work on bowling and fielding, areas which the captain also expressed reservations while summing up the performance after the last match. Even pace spearhead Javagal Srinath, who rejoined the squad in the fourth match after a well-deserved rest, looked pedestrian in the face of the rampaging South Africans. His new ball partner Venkatesh Prasad, who was to join the team in Sharjah, was drafted in by Ganguly at Nagpur, perhaps for some match practice before the tri-series after having cooled his heels since the first Test against the visitors in Bombay.

Going by the need of the hour, it looks unlikely that Ganguly will take chances as far as the line-up goes. Mohammad Kaif is the only uncapped player in the squad, while it was thoughtful of the skipper to give exposure to Tamil Nadu left-hander S Sriram in the inconsequential last match, keeping Azharuddin in reserve.

The year 1998 was the most auspicious for India in Sharjah, beginning with Tendulkar's exploits against Shane Warne and Co, as India emerged champions against the Australians riding on his back-to-back centuries. Later in the year, India beat Zimbabwe in the tri-series final.

Pakistan won both the editions of the tri-series last year, the first against the Indians who did not come for the second.

In the recent months, Pakistan's cricketing fortunes have somewhat been similar to that of India. The Pakistanis, led by Wasim Akram, also had a terrible trip Down Under and Saeed Anwar could not stem the rot after replacing Akram for the home series against the Sri Lankans, who made a clean sweep of the three-match one-day series and won the Test series 2-1.

Pakistan had a change of guard after the second Test and new captain Moin Khan started off well in tandem with Javed Miandad, who was appointed coach in place of Intikhab Alam, beating the Islanders in the final Test convincingly to restore a semblance of confidence to the shattered team.

Akram has been included in the squad to Sharjah after his fitness was cleared but Anwar had to remain away from his favourite hunting ground with a neck injury.

Out of the 26 championships held in Sharjah so far, Pakistan have an enviable track record of winning eleven, including six of them in a row from 1988-89 to 1992-93.

The teams:

India: Sourav Ganguly (captain), Rahul Dravid (vice-captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Robin Singh, Sunil Joshi, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Anil Kumble, Nikhil Chopra, Saba Karim (wk), Ajit Agarkar, Mohammad Kaif and S Sriram.

South africa: Hansie Cronje (captain), Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener, Derek Crookes, Mark Boucher (wk), Shaun Pollock, Henry Williams, Mornantau Hayward, Nicky Boje, Neil McKenzie, Dale Benkenstein, Steve Elworthy and Pieter Strydom.

Pakistan: Moin Khan (captain), Inzamam-ul Haq, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Naveed, Wajhatullah Wasti, Younis Khan, Yousuf Youhana, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar Younis, Mohammad Akram, Abdur Razzak, Imran Nazir, Arshad Khan and Shaoib Malik.

John Hampshire (England), Daryl Harper (Australia) and Peter Manuel (Sri Lanka) are the umpires for the tournament which will feature six league matches and the final. Raman Subba Row is the match referee.

All the matches will be day-night and start at 1630 IST. The timings will be 1630 hrs to 2000 hrs (first session), 2000 hrs to 2045 hrs (dinner break) and 2045 hrs to 0015 hrs (second session).