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India aim to defend blemishless 2002 record
- Another high scoring match on the cards in series shootout l West Indies to field same XI

Vijayawada, Nov. 23: Not having lost either a bilateral series or a tournament throughout 2002, India have much to play for in what effectively is the TVS Cup final at the bedecked Indira Gandhi Stadium tomorrow.

It’s going to be a first for this premier Andhra city and, in time, nobody will wish to look back with anything but the most pleasant of thoughts.

In fact, in the past 15 years, only two teams (West Indies in 1987-88 and Australia in 2000-01) have emerged successful in bilateral shootouts in these parts. The task, then, is daunting for the West Indies. In any case, the past fortnight has seen them crash from a high of 2-0 to 3-3.

Yet, even as stand-in captain Rahul Dravid has spelt out the agenda — “batting with responsibility, fielding well and bowling in the right areas” — the visitors must be given the respect they deserve. Few expected a down-to-the-wire finish, on the eve of the series’ start (Jamshedpur), but the cookie has crumbled extraordinarily.

“For a while, we probably thought we were better than we actually are... So, in some ways, the series has definitely been an eye-opener,” remarked coach John Wright, during a chat with The Telegraph. Wright, incidentally, has just completed two years at the job.

The coach, of course, hit the proverbial nail at quite the right spot. What’s pleasing is that the Indians quickly went back on track, confirming their status as frontrunners for the World Cup. Just as important, perhaps, the recovery came about sans any help from a couple of key performers.

Indeed, owing to injuries, the series hasn’t seen a contribution from either Sachin Tendulkar or Zaheer Khan. Moreover, regular captain Sourav Ganguly (the year’s most successful batsman) was forced to take a break after Vadodara — again, to prevent a back problem from getting aggravated.

And, going by the latest on Harbhajan Singh, he probably won’t be available tomorrow either. “Meri poori koshish ho gi khelne ke liye, lekin abhi theek nahin lagta,” Harbhajan, who didn’t play the Jodhpur game, pointed out exclusively this evening.

Significantly, physio Andrew Leipus, who has been working overtime, made no commitment. “At this point, I can’t say anything with certainty. Let’s see how the night goes...”

With Harbhajan as good as (again) out, the thinktank is inclined to field the other specialist off-spinner — Sarandeep Singh. Unless Harbhajan’s recovery from the groin injury is miraculous, Sarandeep will get his third cap and out of the XI will be Reetinder Singh Sodhi.

The youngster made a poor comeback in the last ODI and, given the bottomline, Dravid and Wright obviously believe another specialist spinner (besides the hugely impressive Murali Kartik) is wanted in the XI. No other change is being contemplated.

As for the West Indies, manager Ricky Skerritt announced the XI which did duty in Vadodara and Jodhpur will be retained. There was talk that the poor condition of captain Carl Hooper’s knees may actually force him to miss the decider but, despite hobbling, he has chosen to continue.

[Hooper, by the way, informed he will undergo surgery on the right knee as early as next week, in Adelaide. “I’ll be out for at least three weeks,” he said.]

Mervyn Dillon’s “lower back” injury persists.

Traditionally, very few ODI wickets attract much attention. However, a close look at the one here suggests Jodhpur will eventually be remembered as an aberration. In other words, the batters should resume the business of run-making with no discomfort.

“Looks a typical wicket,” is what Hooper noted. Dravid, who has himself had a superb series, had much the same opinion. All the six previous matches saw successful chases and it’s to be seen whether India’s 36th ODI-staging centre will be any different.

Though handsome contributions have come down the order, and very consistently (barring Jodhpur), the West Indies’ USP has been the Chris Gayle-Wavell Hinds partnership at the top.

While Gayle has already collected an awesome 450 runs (a record against India), Hinds’ effort has seen him total 237.

So, whether the visitors are out to set a target or chase one, the Indian bowlers’ task is cut out. At the same time, no less dangerous are Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Then, finally, Hooper could himself choose to play a captain’s innings.

As for India, the biggest expectation predictably is from Virender Sehwag, yet he hasn’t been consistent — the most significant contributions have, in fact, come from Dravid (297 runs) and V.V.S.Laxman (290). Yuvraj Singh did author a crucial innings in Jodhpur, but Mohammed Kaif hasn’t come anywhere close to repeating that whirlwind unbeaten 31 in Jamshedpur.

Dwarfed by the big names, the workmanlike Sanjay Bangar has nevertheless proved to be India’s Man of the Moment. He hasn’t looked back after that stupendous 57 not out in Ahmedabad and, clearly, has a key role. Not just with the bat, mind you.

Barring the recently-married Kartik, no bowler has consistently stood out. However, given that the sport has an enigmatic flavour, one spell may still prove the most defining of the series...

As we await a cracker, the odds marginally favour India. A home team win will be in keeping with the ICC’s ODI standings: India at No.5, one slot ahead of the West Indies.

TEAMS

INDIA (likely): Virender Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Sanjay Bangar, Ajit Agarkar, Murali Kartik, Jawagal Srinath and Sarandeep Singh.

WEST INDIES: Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds, Marlon Samuels, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Carl Hooper, Ricardo Powell, Ridley Jacobs, Vasbert Drakes, Pedro Collins and Corey Colleymore.

Field umpires: Asoka de Silva and A.V.Jayaprakash.

TV umpire: K.Hariharan.

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