| Henry Olonga and Heath Streak during a practice session in Harare Tuesday
Harare: It was that incomprehensible defeat at the hands of Zimbabwe, in Leicester, which effectively derailed India’s 1999 World Cup campaign. This time, a win against them will put our 2003 challenge back on track.
Late Tuesday, it was learnt that Harbhajan Singh is certain to figure in the XI if just one spinner is picked. The toss-up, then, is between Ashish Nehra and Anil Kumble. Conditions will determine who will play.
Traditionally, Zimbabwe take to an India match as underdogs. On Wednesday, however, they will be starting as equals (at the Harare Sports Club). Of course, a number of reasons have ‘improved’ the home team’s pre-game standing: The Indians’ lack of form, the home advantage and eight points (four by default, off England) in the kitty.
After being smashed by Australia, the Indians will actually be relaunching their Pool A campaign here. “We are aware of the importance of the day...We’ve got to apply ourselves and put runs on the board...It’s a testing period and how we come out of it will reveal our character,” pointed out Indian captain Sourav Ganguly.
Opposite number Heath Streak, though, isn’t short on confidence. “We’re backing ourselves to pull off a victory...If successful, we will have an excellent chance of qualifying for the Super Six. That, for now, is our priority,” he emphasised.
Yet, as coach Geoff Marsh told The Telegraph, “It’s the form on the day” which matters most and the past doesn’t have much relevance. In other words, Zimbabwe aren’t comforting themselves too much by the Indians’ recent performances.
Just as well because, potentially, the most explosive opening pair will be on view from India’s side — Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. Only, one hopes this arrangement, whereby Sourav will bat at No.4, doesn’t become bonus ammunition for the captain’s critics.
A couple of options (Sehwag and Dinesh Mongia, for example) were considered for the very top but, eventually, a call from a senior Board functionary made Sourav decide to come down himself. Apparently, back home, nobody wants Sachin to be disturbed. At the same time, everybody wants an opening slot returned to Sehwag.
Obviously, so many demands aren’t making Sourav’s job any easy. But, then, till he himself gets back among the runs — his last innings of any significance was the 53 in Vadodara, three months ago — he will find his freedom curbed. It’s not a happy situation, but it’s in Sourav’s own hands to get out of this corner.
“We’ll have to play in overdrive...There’s no choice,” is how Sourav summed up Team India’s requirement. Streak too was candid in acknowledging:
“We will have to make things happen... We can’t sit back and expect India to gift us wickets...”
The past year has seen the teams meet each other six times and the scoreline is 4-2 in India’s favour. However, the five-match series (in India) was as close as the result (3-2), while Zimbabwe were extremely well-placed in last September’s Champions Trophy till Mohammed Kaif (an unbeaten 111) and vice-captain Rahul Dravid (71) rescued India from a pitiable five down for 87.
For Kaif, it’s now a do-or-die game.
The contest has been keen and gone are the days when Zimbabweans were overawed by the more experienced opposition. Tuesday’s The Herald even had a cocky quote from quick Douglas Hondo: “I have respect for this Indian team, but that respect won’t be there once we take the field. Everyone plays to win.”
More than anything else, that’s a reflection of the home side’s confidence. In any case, Hondo has scripted excellent performances versus India. A few hours from now, he will get another chance to improve his record. Or, will Sachin (who missed that 1999 match owing to his father’s death) let him know just who is boss'
It’s a teasing wait.
It’s no secret, by the way, that Zimbabwe’s accent will be on pace and, while retaining the XI which thrashed Namibia, they have named Andy Blignaut in the XII. It’s almost certain that Blignaut, who troubled India on their last visit (summer of 2001) will play, but it couldn’t be confirmed as to who will have to make way.
Though the selectors have omitted the hugely experienced Alistair Campbell, Andy Flower is very much there, as is Craig Wishart who posted a superb unbeaten 172 against Namibia. Andy, in fact, will be making his last appearance at the Harare SC — Zimbabwe’s remaining games are all in Bulawayo.
Black armband or not, Andy is bound to be seeking to say farewell with one more knock of consequence versus India. As it is, his record is phenomenal.
As it rained late on Monday and was overcast for much of Tuesday, the Indians are “strongly considering” giving speedster Ashish Nehra his maiden World Cup cap. However, for him to come in, one of the spinners (Anil Kumble or Harbhajan Singh) will have to be dropped.
Nehra, it may be recalled, did well at the Harare SC on the 2001 tour and, currently, has the support of both Sourav and coach John Wright. The wicket is expected to offer juice and, so, fielding him shouldn’t be a bad idea.
Incidentally, if the elements continue to come into calculations, then the toss will become more crucial that it would otherwise have been.
INDIA (likely): Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra/Anil Kumble, Jawagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan.
ZIMBABWE (from): Craig Wishart, Mark Vermeulen, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Dion Ebrahim, Guy Whittal, Tatenda Taibu, Heath Streak, Bryan Murphy, Douglas Hondo, Henry Olonga and Andy Blignaut.
Umpires: Rudi Koertzen (SA), Asoka de Silva (SL).
Match Referee: Clive Lloyd (WI).
Match starts: 1.00 pm (IST).