After the many traumatic weeks in Australia, there could be nothing better than a home (Pepsi) series �in this case, featuring two Tests versus South Africa. Yet, Hansie Cronje�s team may not provide as much comfort as Sachin Tendulkar would like.
In fact, even without a reminder from Cronje himself, the world knows this side is more hardened and gifted than the one which toured India in 1996-97. Significant, too, is that South Africa finished 1999 as the top-ranked Test team: undefeated, with a fantastic win-percentage of 80.00.
Of course, the groin injury to Darryl Cullinan, arguably the most accomplished batsman in the present side � he certainly has the No.1 average � has come at the wrong time. Cullinan, with an unbeaten 275 as his highest score, got injured in the tour-opener versus the Board President�s XI.
That took much of the sheen off South Africa�s performance � they came to within one wicket of forcing a stunning win � but so spirited is this team that it won�t allow his non-availability to dampen resolve.
Intriguingly, both India and South Africa are a trifle confused over the XI to be fielded. To an extent that�s understandable, as a two-Test series allows little scope to recover from errors in judgement. Therefore, only the best foot has to be put forward at the Wankhede.
Again, understandably, it�s the South Africans who appear to have greater misgivings over the wicket prepared by rookie Nadeem Memom, a managing committee member of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA).
It has manifested itself in the announcement, late this evening, that only Cullinan isn�t in contention, the rest of the squad is.
One understands the thinktank � which includes South Africa�s first non-White chief selector, Rushdie Magiet � is debating over whether to play Nicky Boje alongside Clive Eksteen, a move which will mean fielding two specialist spinners.
The other �big� debate is whether or not to give Mornantau Hayward his fourth Test cap. Judging from outside, both debates seem to be superfluous.
Though there is much merit in the first one, Boje still isn�t half as good as the man he replaced � the enigmatic (and injured) Paul Adams. As for the fiery Hayward, after knocking Mohammed Azharuddin out of the Test and hurting Nayan Mongia as well, in the tour-opener, he ought to be walking into the XI.
Strictly in the mental game, and cricket today has so much to do with the mind, the 23-year-old has already notched up invaluable points against the Indians who were only recently singed by Brett Lee.
Cronje, incidentally, feels the wicket will have considerable �life� for the quicks early on and, then, will offer bite to spinners. �The first innings, where both are concerned, will influence the series in a big way,� he opined.
Clearly, Cronje would like to win the toss and avoid batting fourth.
Sachin, familiar with everything at the Wankhede, believes �a good Test wicket� is on offer. �Of course, it will turn, but it won�t do so from the first day. Really, we should see good cricket.�
Privately, in the later stages, Sachin and the rest of the side expect the ball to turn square. So, it�s more or less decided to attack with all three spinners in the squad � veteran Anil Kumble and the uncapped Nikhil Chopra (though he has played 36 ODIs) and Murali Karthik.
It will be a time of high pressure for both debutant spinners, but Chopra has been around for 16 months and Murali, who is 23, isn�t short on confidence. �At this level, some pressure has to be there� However, I�m trying to stay calm, � he told The Telegraph, smiling.
Murali, it may be recalled, had South Africa in more than a spot of bother in their match against Board President�s XI.
But fielding three spinners and two quicks (Jawagal Srinath and Ajit Agarkar) will entail sacrificing one specialist batsman. It appears Wasim Jaffer will eventually miss out, though Sachin did indicate he would be happier with the openers being specialists.
If the local lad (Jaffer) does sit out, Mongia will open with V.V.S. Laxman and the No.6 slot will go to Ajay Jadeja. Till last evening, another rookie, Mohammed Kaif, had the edge (over Jadeja) but experience got preference.
Not only will Kaif feel terribly let down, his exclusion from the XII suggests the selectors got their �first� selection wrong. He was in the original XIV, while Jadeja came in only after Azhar pulled out.
Logically, then, Kaif should have been excited over a possible cap No.1.
Obviously, Jadeja has much to be happy with the expected turn of events. And, at nets in the morning, former captain Bishan Singh Bedi had excellent words of advice: �There�s a berth waiting to be grabbed. Make the most, if you can.�
Actually, the latter bit would apply even to Rahul Dravid. After a mere 93 runs in the last Test series, Dravid is in urgent need to rectify the drop in average � 48.69 from an even more impressive 52.68.
Also seeking to improve his will be Sourav Ganguly. A couple of handsome knocks will not only help India�s cause; his own �coronation� once Sachin steps down will get confirmed.
With the Indians returning badly bruised from Australia, interest, though, has been pretty low-key. According to MCA joint-secretary Ratnaker Shetty, only around 20,000 of the 38,000 tickets had been sold till late this afternoon.
The MCA is hopeful of a gradual upswing in demand but, for that, Sachin and Co. must author a flawless act.
Meanwhile, Cronje accepted he wouldn�t have struck a �deal� with England captain Nasser Hussain, in the final (rain-marred) Test at Centurion Park, had the five-game series still been �alive�. �We had already won it (the series) and there was some responsibility to entertain fans as well,� he remarked. Both South Africa and England forfeited an innings each, a decision which saw England pull off a stunning one-day-like victory.
INDIA (from): V.V.S. Laxman, Nayan Mongia, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Ajay Jadeja, Anil Kumble, Ajit Agarkar, Nikhil Chopra, Jawagal Srinath, Murali Karthik and Wasim Jaffer.
OUTH AFRICA (from): Mark Boucher, Hansie Cronje, Boeta Dippenaar, Allan Donald, Clive Eksteen, Herschelle Gibbs, Mornantau Hayward, Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten, Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Pieter Strydom, Nicky Boje.
Umpires: David Shepherd and Srinivas Venkatraghavan.
Match Referee: Raman Subba Row.
But much as both would have liked Sunday�s events � Sachin�s decision to quit and Kapil�s absence at the selection meeting � to be forgotten, they were the target of uncomfortable questions with the central theme being: Couldn�t it all have been avoided?
Significantly, South African captain Hansie Cronje acknowledged the �off-the-field� happenings in Indian cricket could work to his team�s advantage. The South Africans, though, won�t only be banking on the Indian lafda, as Mumbaikars put it, to see them through.
Of course, Kapil and Sachin may not have been convincing in everything they said, but both tackled the barrage with a perfectly straight face. And Sachin, specially, requested fans to support him by accepting his decision.
�I can understand their feelings but, now that I�ve decided to quit, they should support me by accepting it,� Sachin remarked. Laughing, he added: �Judge me by the timing of my batting, not the decision I�ve made which, in any case, is final.�
Just a shade emotionally, Sachin insisted his responsibility wouldn�t be any less once the Test series, which begins tomorrow, ends in Bangalore on March 6. �The responsibility will continue to remain the same� I�ll have to score runs and I�m really looking forward to doing that.�
Kapil�s response to the many questions was on similar lines. He began with �Can�t we forget the past? Life is too beautiful to�� and ended with �I don�t need an invitation to attend selection committee meetings.�
In between, however, the coach maintained it wouldn�t make �much of a difference� if he didn�t attend a meeting where �five heads (selectors)� and the captain would, in any case, be present.
Also, initially, Kapil wasn�t forthcoming on whether he would attend the next selection meeting, on Sunday, to pick XIV for the second (and final) Test, from March 2. �I can�t talk of the future�� was his response. Later, though, Kapil declared an invitation wouldn�t be necessary.
Incidentally, the selectors may even name Sachin�s successor � Sourav Ganguly is frontrunner � on Sunday. Besides the five ODIs versus South Africa, the captain will almost certainly be appointed for the March 22-31 triangular in Sharjah as well.
Indeed, his term could even be till the Asia Cup in Dhaka (May 27-June 5).
The painful decision came after breakdown of talks following a number of tripartite meetings � among the striking union and the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC) and the West Bengal labour commissioner.
The club�s management had been in discussion with the four unions in respect of the dire need to rationalise the existing service rules and condition of the employees, particularly those belonging to the �middle class� category. The existing wage bill of the club has been reportedly reached a disproportionate level because of the faulty middle-class Dearness Allowance (DA) which has been in force since 1986. The management has been expecting the unions to give it a sympathetic thought. �The DA and the salary structure of this section of employees is such that wages are nearly doubled every five year:� said Vineet Verma CEO & secretary RCTC.
The matter was expected to be sorted out once the chairman of the principal secretary to the Chief Minister offered to sit for discussions with the representatives of striking Union affiliated to CITU. Unfortunately, the union leader failed to see the reasoning, thus cancellation.
The last word from the union leaders was an immediate hike of Rs 1,000 for each of the 200 odds workers which would pave way for the smooth running of the Invitational races. The DA issue was, however, side-stepped and kept in abeyance to the helplessness of RCTC and representative of the Left Front government.
There was pal of gloom in the club�s Russell Street office. Sam Roy, dist. manager ITC, the sponsors of the mega-show, said: �Ironically, the first �Invitation Cup� of the new millennium was coming back to the city from where we had started our journey. The event has been cancelled but in principle we endorse the stand taken by RCTC.�
N. M. Ghose, Senior steward RCTC, however, was of opinion that negotiations came to standstill a day earlier. �Nevertheless, I must say I have failed in my commitment. The matter could have been dragged on for another day:� said Ghose.
The future of the club and its existence is at stake said a club member on condition of anonymity. �When the state controlled wing of the trade union fails to pay any heed to its principal you may do hardly anything. Hard days are ahead and who says the state government has mellowed down. The industry in the state is already in disarray and now the sport. The club members may insist on a lock-out:� said the aggrieved club member.
B. Guha, secretary of the striking union, RCTC Workers and Staff union, was in a meeting with fellow leaders and as not available for comments.
The grass, however, is unlikely to experience tomorrow�s sunshine as the home team prefers a grass-less, slow turner to collect full points which will boost their chances of reaching the knock-out stage.
Bengal collected five points by virtue of a first-innings lead in the first match against Delhi. Against Rajasthan, who lost to Karnataka and conceded a lead to Delhi, Bengal are hoping to post an outright win. But a look at the their arsenal doesn�t quite send encouraging signals.
The inspirational Sourav Ganguly, who took five wickets in the second innings of the previous match and captained the team with aplomb to raise visions of victory, will not be there. The rest of the bowlers, barring skipper Utpal Chatterjee, don�t look capable of bowling out a side twice unless there is something evil in the pitch.
Rajasthan skipper Gagan Khoda didn�t find anything perilous in the 22-yard strip which prompted him to say that the surface was unlikely to produce a result.
�Unless there is a major debacle, it looks as if a first-innings lead is all a team can get,� noted Khoda, who opens the batting with Anshu Jain.
He expects some turn Day III onwards. Batting, Khoda said, is the strength of his team and he would like to make first use of the wicket.
An important component of this Rajasthan team is former India medium-pacer Sanjeev Sharma, who missed the last match in Karnataka which the hosts won. Gaurav Sharma and Samsher Singh are the other seamers.
The spin department revolves around Anup Dave and D.P. Singh, the former a member of the under-19 World Cup-winning Indian squad. They also have a leg-spinner in Jai Kumar who didn�t play the last match.
The Bengal skipper, having taken 32 wickets in five matches so far, wants to play it safe, saying his priority is to ensure five points first.
Alokendu Lahiri, he said, will replace Sourav and there won�t be any other changes to the XI which played the last match.
Alokendu is likely to partner Nikhil Haldipur as opener with Devang Gandhi coming in at No. 3. Batting, clearly, is Bengal�s strength and Rohan Gavaskar, Syed Saba Karim and Srikant Kalyani are all in form.
But bowlers, specially the youngsters, continue to worry Bengal. Wrichik Majumder and Sumit Panda are yet to translate talent into achievement.
The former, a leg-spinner, has done well with the bat but that doesn�t justify his allrounder status, as he took just 12 wickets in five matches. Laxmi Ratan Shukla did pick up four in the last match, but has been far from impressive with the new ball.
It will be a good test for Sourasish Lahiri. The tall under-19 off-spinner, who clean-bowled Mohammed Azharuddin in a Wills Trophy match this season, didn�t get to bowl much in the previous match though Sourav described him as a good prospect. It will be interesting to see whether he lives up to that expectation.
The last time the teams met, in Rajasthan last year, Bengal advanced on a first innings lead. This time, eight points will help them nose ahead of their rivals in group A. It will, no doubt, take a vastly disciplined effort to do that.
BENGAL (likely): Utpal Chatterjee (captain), Nikhil Haldipur, Alokendu Lahiri, Devang Gandhi, Rohan Gavaskar, Srikant Kalyani, Syed Saba Karim, Utpal Chatterjee, Wrichik Majumder, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Sourasish Lahiri, Sumit Panda.
RAJASTHAN (from): Gagan Khoda, Anshu Jain, Nikhil Doru, Rahul Kanwat, P. Krishna Kumar, Sanjeev Sharma, Kuldeep Singh, Saket Bhatia, Rohit Jahlani, D.P. Singh, Samsher Singh, Anup Dave, Jai Kumar, Pramod Yadav, Gaurav Sharma.
Umpires: N. Muralidharan, T.R. Kashyepan.