That the Indians managed to be at the Premadasa Stadium within two hours of their arrival at the hotel on Wednesday evening was some achievement -- not least because they were dealing with both a small media army that had staked out the mellow-lit, marble-floored lobby hours in advance and Colombo’s thickest traffic of office-goers heading home.
It was an impressive show of intent, befitting a side that has designs on the number-one ranking. India will become the best one-day side in the world, as per the ICC’s computer, if it triumphs in the Compaq Cup tri-series with an all-win record.
The campaign begins with back-to-back matches against New Zealand and Sri Lanka on Friday and Saturday respectively -- as severe a test of endurance as any, for these are enervating conditions to play cricket in.
Because of New Zealand’s loss to Sri Lanka in the first game, India has just to defeat Daniel Vettori’s side to reserve its spot in Monday’s final. M.S. Dhoni’s men have had little trouble with New Zealand in one-day cricket -- the side’s 3-1 triumph in New Zealand earlier this year was one of five successive bilateral series wins.
India has a 17-5 win-loss record in this period extending back to last August, its other series victories coming at the expense of Sri Lanka (twice), England, and, most recently, the West Indies.
India has also done extremely well at the Premadasa Stadium in this period, winning five of its seven matches. A large part of it has had to do with its faster bowlers dictating play under lights, exploiting Sri Lanka’s congenital weakness against seam bowling.
The other facets of its game have impressed as well: its young batsmen showed the way in 2008, handling Ajantha Mendis, who had been near unplayable until then, with emboldening confidence.
“We’ve come and done well here, so we certainly understand the conditions,” said Gary Kirsten, India’s coach. “The pitch seems to be of two halves — we know how the conditions can change under lights. But each game arrives and things happen differently. You have to be up for it and make sure your intensity is high because you can’t give an inch to sides as good as these (New Zealand and Sri Lanka).”
Kirsten disagreed that the matches here were often won at the toss. “What tends to happen in such situations is everyone talks it up a lot,” he said. “All it needs is one performance to change perception, and we certainly understand what we need to do whether batting first or batting second.”
Rahul Dravid will bat at number three on his one-day return, M.S. Dhoni, India’s captain, said. With Virender Sehwag missing the series with a shoulder injury and Gautam Gambhir aggravating a groin strain during Wednesday’s practice, Dravid’s presence at three will be vital, particularly if India is batting second, when the ball has tended to do things under lights.
There’s been much discussion about why Dravid was brought back after nearly two years -- was it some sort of statement to the younger batsman who have appeared to struggle against the short ball in recent times or was it merely insurance for the Champions Trophy in South Africa, where the conditions are expected to help seam bowling?
Whatever the rationale, his inclusion could have an important knock-on effect. Dhoni has appeared to lose some of his explosiveness ever since he started sharing the responsibility of batting through an innings with Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar. With Dravid to relieve him of that role, the Indian captain could rediscover his old ways.
‘Jekyll & Hyde team’
After New Zealand’s 97-run defeat in the opening match, Andy Moles, the side’s coach, suggested he was in charge of “a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team”. “When we play well we’re really good but when we play poorly, we want to forget such performances,” he said.
There is some truth in it, for New Zealand isn’t without talent. When they’ve managed to ignite in the past, they’ve scared sides as formidable as Australia and India. But New Zealand’s young batsmen struggled to make the adjustments the peculiar strip at the Premadasa demands.
In matters less dispiriting, Shane Bond looks to be settling in nicely. The fast-bowler bowled within himself for most part on Tuesday, even experimenting with cutters on the slow surface. He’d like a spell under lights.
The sides (from):
India: M.S. Dhoni (capt. & wk), Sachin Tendulkar, Dinesh Karthik, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Ashish Nehra, R.P. Singh, Amit Mishra and Abhishek Nayar.
New Zealand: Daniel Vettori (capt.), Jesse Ryder, Brendon McCullum (wk), Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor, Grant Elliott, Neil Broom, Jacob Oram, Kyle Mills, Jeetan Patel, Nathan McCullum, Brendon Diamanti, Ian Butler, Shane Bond, Daryl Tuffey, and Gareth Hopkins.
Umpires: Billy Doctrove and Kumar Dharmasena. Third umpire: Gamini Silva.
Match referee: Chris Broad.
Hours of play: 2.30 p.m. till 6 p.m., and 6.45 p.m. till close.