| Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a training session in Jaipur on Saturday. (AFP)
Jaipur: The Champions Trophy schedule is such that the hosts will have a 11-day break between the opening match and the next. For the ‘vacation’ to be enjoyed, though, Rahul Dravid and Co. must defeat England at the spruced-up Sawai Man Singh Stadium here Sunday.
Rajasthan’s capital, which has something of history in just about every nook and corner, has already hosted two day-night ODIs (both tournament qualifiers) this week. The big one, however, isn’t many hours away and the state association chief, Lalit Modi, has had a tough time trying to oblige those who won’t be satisfied with anything but the best seats.
It’s known that Team India thrashed England 5-1 when the two met in a bilateral series earlier this year, but Dravid was quick to accept that wouldn’t have much relevance in the Champions Trophy proper’s face-off No.1.
“What matters is how a team plays on the day... In fact, any of the eight sides in the tournament could go on to win next year’s World Cup... There are no ‘soft’ teams in this Champions Trophy... Of course, it’s going to help if we get off to a roll early on,” he maintained.
Clearly, the changed format should significantly raise the level of competition in the hottest event outside the World Cup.
Dravid, as usual, gave no indication about the likely XI. Nor, for that matter, did he indicate who would open. The buzz is that senior-most pro Sachin Tendulkar wants to launch the innings with Virender Sehwag. It appears he will have his way and, so, the captain has to occupy a middle-order slot.
What’s certain (well, to the extent things can be) is that the Indians are going to field a conventional 7-4 combination. Given the slowness of the wickets, there was speculation that five specialist bowlers may get the nod, but that’s unlikely.
It’s not confirmed, but there’s a ‘tussle’ between Irfan Pathan and Ramesh Powar. If Dravid and coach Greg Chappell decide to play both specialist spinners (the in-form Harbhajan Singh being the other), then Pathan won’t have a role. There’s no question mark over Ajit Agarkar and Munaf Patel.
Among the specialist batsmen, Suresh Raina is the one with the least chance of making the XI. That Dinesh Mongia came good in the only match he played in Kuala Lumpur, against Australia, has cemented his place. For now, at least.
From England’s point of view, much of the attention will obviously be on captain Andrew Flintoff, who hasn’t played a one-day International for six months. He hasn’t fully recovered from surgery on his left ankle and, so, won’t bowl in the tournament.
“I do bowl a bit at nets, but that’s at about 75 per cent... I’m not going to rush things and it was known that complete recovery would take time,” Flintoff remarked, adding he would bat at “No.3.”
Dravid, by the way, paid Flintoff a handsome compliment: “His exploits in the last Ashes (2005) were well documented, not so the impact he made in India this year... He made a big impact with bat, ball and captaincy... I would like him to do well versus the others, but he should fail when playing against India!”
Commenting on the pluses and minuses of a blockbuster event at home, Dravid said: “Definitely more pluses as the crowd’s support is a factor...”
Talking of the janata, it’s expected to root the most for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. If a reminder is needed, Master Blaster II had taken Sri Lanka to the cleaners with an explosive unbeaten 183 a year ago, the last time India played at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium.
Dhoni, though, isn’t taking anything for granted. “Tomorrow will be a fresh innings and I’m going to start on zero... Last year’s knock gives confidence, but doesn’t guarantee anything,” he told The Telegraph in his down-to-earth manner.
Incidentally, with the business end of the Champions Trophy at hand, few would bet on any match ending in so lopsided a manner as the Sri Lanka-West Indies one Saturday. With the West Indies (the holders) managing no more than 80, the Sri Lankans topped the qualifiers with ease.
England finished runners-up in the last edition, at home, while India were joint-winners (with Sri Lanka) in 2002. That’s the best for the two drawn to ‘launch’ the tournament.
INDIA (likely): Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Dinesh Mongia, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, Ajit Agarkar, Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan/Ramesh Powar.
ENGLAND (likely): Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Michael Yardy, Jamie Dalrymple, Chris Read, Sajid Mahmood, James Anderson, Steve Harmison.
Umpires: Simon Taufel, Daryl Harper; TV: Billy Bowden.
Match Referee: Jeff Crowe.
Match starts: 2.30 pm.