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May 13, 1999


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World Coup!

Sanjay Manjrekar

"Do you think India will win the World Cup?"

Ah, now where have I heard that one before?! The nation is now in the firm grip of World Cup frenzy, and this is the one question on every Indian's lips. Till now, I have evaded this question from fans by smiling, pointing heavenwards and indicating that only He knows. And when some of the more adamant ones insisted on a more earth-bound reply, I would say well, if India bats well, bowls well and fields well, they have as good a chance of winning as anyone else.

Now, with less than 24 hours for the action to begin, let me sit down and for the first time seriously tackle the burning question: what are India's chances of winning the World Cup?

Let us at the start accept one thing -- being the best team in the world, and winning the World Cup, are two different things. India won the title in 1983 by beating the West Indies in the final at Lord's, and immediately thereafter lost to the same opponents, 5-0, at home. That title win in 1983 was a 'world coup'.

The same has been the case, pretty much, with the champions of 1992 and 1996 as well. So the bottomline is, being the best team in the tournament is what matters more than being the best in the world. So then, the real question is, can India be the best team in the tournament? Having identified the real question, let us now try and answer this.

The very first factor one has to take into account is the venue -- England! And this is what makes me a trifle pessimistic about our chances. Really, we have such a pitiable record overseas in recent times, that one can't help but be pessimistic -- all you have to do is recall our last visit to these parts, in 1996. This overseas record of ours is, I feel, going to be our biggest liability.

But then there are also the pros, and India's biggest strength is the wonderful talent in their ranks -- the kind of talent that can, when on song, upset all opposition plans. And of course, the presence of a 26 year old man named Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is another huge plus. Over the years, India has built for itself a reputation as a team that can win one day games by individual brilliance -- one great performance, by one individual, has been the Indian trademark.

Our good performances at home and in venues like Sharjah, where the conditions are conducive for such displays of individual brilliance, is a testimony to that reality. Outside the sub-continent, however, it requires a combination of eleven competent players doing well. To win consistently in England, more than one individual has to fire, Tendulkar will certainly need more hands here, to expect him to win most games singlehandedly as he does in our part o the world would be unreasonable.

I have maintained that the three-week preparation time the Indians gave themselves in England is crucial. It is almost as important as the three or four weeks of the tournament proper. Anshuman Gaekwad, the Indian coach, I am sure is aware of how vital it is to get the entire Indian team to work together in England, to the requirments of English conditions. And I think he would have used this three week period to tune his machinery and get the team ready to face the demands of the English winter -- I beg your pardon, I mean English summer.

The selectors' job, like much else, is a thankless one. This time, though, they deserve to be congratulated on a job well done -- they have selected the best possible 15 keeping in mind the tour, unlike the committee of 1996 which picked 5 spinners to tour England in the first half of the English season. I need not remind you of the outcome of that exercise, do I? This time, though, the selectors have done their exercise correctly -- now it is all up to those 15 young men, and their coach Anshuman Gaekwad.

Mohammad Azharuddin is on yet another tour as captain with a lot of excess baggage in tow. This puts a heavy load of pressure on the Indian skipper -- something he is quite used to shouldering, by now. But this time, I suspect, it is slightly different -- if Azhar wants to continue as India's captain, nothing less than winning the Cup will do. And even he is aware of this.

To fulfill that requirement, he will depend heavily on his team-mates, especially Sachin who has bailed him out several times in the past. Azhar is not personally in the best of form, but don't forget where he is now -- they love him in England, for he has mesmerised that country with his artistry in the past. Yes, Azhar has a great record against England, so check out the spring there will be in his stride when he takes the field at Hove against the South Africans on May 15.

Mohammad Azharuddin was first appointed captain of the national team in 1990. We all know by now what he is capable of and what he is not. He is not the best captain in the world, nor does he claim to be that. It would be naive to expect him to do wonders with his leadership, but I believe he is still the right choice to lead India at this delicate juncture. And that brings me right back to my earlier point, that for India to make an impact on this tournament, all ten players have to rally around the skipper and do their bit for the cause. Very much like the team of 1983 in fact, and yes, let Sachin Tendulkar do the odd Kapil Dev in Tunbridge Wells.

India are known to be slow starters. Many feel that the draw has been unkind to them, forcing them to play the favourites of the World Cup in their opener, but to my way of thinking, here is where India has a great opportunity. They are playing the strongest one day team in the world at a point when they -- South Africa, that is -- will be at their most vulnerable. The most complete team in the tournament will, definitely, be a little sluggish at the start, a little anxious going in to their first match. They will no doubt be at their best later, as the tournament progresses -- so this is India's best shot to upset a highly rated applecart, to go for a top seed not in top form.

Most people expect the South Africans to steam-roller over the Indians. The Indians I think should look at the situation positively -- they are, if you get right down to it, in an everything to gain, nothing to lose kind of situation, and that is the best place to be in. The pressure will be on the opponents, so if India can pull off a win in their first game, that too against the pre-tournament favourites, it will do marvels for their morale, and give them the impetus they need to go the distance.

A buoyant Indian team is always a deadly dangerous team, and I suspect that all teams that go up against us later in the competition are going to realise just that.

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Sanjay Manjrekar

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