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Cautious optimism among Indian ranks

Colombo: The Tamil Tiger rebels settling for autonomy rather than a separate state may have brought about a sense of relief among the common man here but it is cricket that is ruling their sentiments for now.

So engrossed are the people here that an India-Sri Lanka final in the ICC Champions Trophy seems a foregone conclusion to most of them. The Indians, they believe, should carry their heavy equipment into the title-round like some troops with their cannons while the Lankans, their exuberance doubled in front of their home crowd, will make smooth sailing.

From the immigration officer at the Bandaranaike Airport to the man in charge of the press corps at the Premadasa, there seems to be no difference of opinion. Even though, they seemed to forget in a hurry the might of the Australians or the versatility of the South Africans.

The Indian skipper, though, is not reading too much into such propaganda. Team India may be on a roll but the bitter memories of having surrendered it all at the final pole in Nairobi still pains him. He, though, firmly believes the class or resolve is not lacking this time too.

“Wednesday’s semi-final will be tough, a crunch game for us. South Africa are more balanced and far better in comparison to say, England,” said a cautious Sourav Ganguly.

He refuses to concede that, on current form, the Australians should be considered well ahead of the other three semi-finalists. “All four are almost of the same standard. The one-day game is such that any team that plays true to form can win on their given day.”

Current form, in fact, should not bother Sourav. The way they forced England into submission in the final group league game, the other night, was proof enough of their batting might. Thanks to the sometimes hidden, sometimes recognised but at all times utilitarian talent of Virender Sehwag blossoming at just the right time, the victory was achieved with clinical precision.

An awesome innings made to look even more scintillating in the company of Sourav. The stiff target, under lights, looked relatively simple because of the openers’ approach.

Only Allan Donald seemed to hide his feelings behind his professional veil. “I don’t want to take away the credit from Sehwag’s innings. But to win tomorrow we’ve got to get them out.”

The uncertainty over Donald’s playing has been put to rest. “I still have my right ankle strapped. I had a long stint at the nets yesterday and felt fine. It shouldn’t be a problem, I’ll be fine.”

The momentum gained in the first 15 overs are proving to be increasingly important under the conditions prevalent in this part of the world. The task will once again fall on the Indian openers to keep the Donalds and the Shaun Pollocks at bay.

Winning the toss will always work to the advantage of a team batting first, but as the Indians proved against England, it is not the decisive element.

“It makes little difference whether you bat first or second,” said Sourav. “It has been a good batting wicket with much bounce and carry. But considering the fact that so many matches have been played on the same turf, it is likely to be on the slower side and accordingly the bounce will also be less. I hope the spinners will get some assistance from the wicket,” he explained.

That will mean very little encouragement for the South African quicks.

Amid all the frenzy surrounding Sehwag — even Sourav’s 19th century has been receded in the background — spare a thought for Sachin Tendulkar. The Little Master is yet to blossom fully in this tournament. He might just have reserved his skills for the more opportune of moments, choosing to stay away from the limelight when others jostled for attention. Who knows, tomorrow might just be his day.

The Indians will go into the match with an unchanged XI that played England while the Proteas are worried over Nicky Boje’s fitness. If he is finally ruled out in the morning, then either Justin Ontong or Robert Peterson, the left-arm spinner and one of the reinforcements, will be fielded.

Alan Dawson is also unlikely because of a calf muscle pull and Steve Elworthy may push Makhaya Ntini out of contention for the opening bowler’s slot.

The South Africans, of late, have lacked the consistency and will have to surmount the handicaps on way to the final. But in Herschelle Gibbs, Jonty Rhodes and Boeta Dippenaar, not to mention of Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener, they have potential match winners.

The Indian attack in the middle overs, as Sourav conceded Tuesday, has proved to be a pin-prick with the thinktank’s decision to stick to seven batsmen. The way the English middle-order threatened to cut loose should be encouraging for the likes of Rhodes and Klusener.

“I will have to rotate the fifth bowler’s slot between Sachin, Yuvraj, Sehwag and myself. We have to improve in this respect,” he said, not one bit seeming to be threatened by the existing inadequacies.

The energy sapping humidity and sultry conditions have always worked to India’s favour. The South Africans, like most other sides, will find the going tough if made to bowl first. That will certainly mean, Advantage India.

TEAMS

India: Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, V.V.S. Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra.

South Africa: Herschelle Gibbs, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Jonty Rhodes, Boeta Dippenaar, Mark Boucher, Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Nicky Boje/Justin Ontong/Robert Peterson, Allan Donald, Steve Elworthy/Makhaya Ntini.

Umpires: Russel Tiffin, David Shepherd.

Match Referee: Ranjan Madugalle.

n South Africans ooze confidence, on Page 24

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