Can the Caribbeans stop Indian juggernaut?

HARARE, JULY 6. The day of reckoning has come for India and the West Indies. A defeat may rankle but a victory shall go a long way in rekindling self- belief, especially among the West Indians. Not that the Indians are overconfident or complacent from their cricket over the last fortnight. The team does require a title to boost its reputation overseas. ``No one is taking the contest lightly. We've lost three of the last four finals,'' Sourav Ganguly reminded his mates.

A joke doing the rounds here is that Colin Croft might do well to stage a comeback, such is the standard and confidence of the West Indians at this juncture. ``It's a very poor team,'' said noted commentator Tony Cozier, his anguish reflecting the emotions of a man who has seen the best and now the worst times of the West Indies.

On the eve of the triangular series final, the Indians obviously look formidable on paper. Their brilliant run in the league stage was just what coach John Wright had expected of them even though there were a few gray areas which needed to be sorted out as soon as possible.

The Indians may have lesser problems than the opposition at this point but nothing can be left to chance in limited overs cricket where one spell and a few hard blows can change the complexion of the contest. The unpredictable nature of the West Indies is a threat lurking around for the Indians, who reckon themselves as best favoured to win. If the Indians are inspired, so are the West Indians, who are keen to win the title to prove that this young team has the spirit and talent to stop the Indian juggernaut. A tough task indeed.

Daunting factor

India's unbeaten record in the one-day series is a daunting factor for the West Indians, who are disjointed and dejected at the manner in which their cricket has been meandering the last few years. One good triumph in 10 matches has not been able to bury the big failures and it has been generally despondency that has confronted the lovers of West Indian cricket.

In comparison, India has been making encouraging progress, the strides have been measured but quite effective, given the nature of the team's composition. Under a captain who has just about begun to regain his touch, it seems to be a team committed to play to its potential. And the potential suggests India should whip the opposition on Saturday.

The return of V.V.S. Laxman to the side adds to the depth, the Indians having dropped Ajit Agarkar for the final along with Dinesh Mongia. With Harvinder too unlikely to get the nod, the choice for the all-rounder's slot will now boil down to Virender Sehwag or Reetinder Singh Sodhi, depending on the pitch.

The West Indians will be without Cameroon Cuffy, their best bowler of the season. An injury to his left in-step has actually left the West Indian bowling severely wounded.

``I don't want to be harsh on ther youngsters. They are trying their best,'' Hooper has said about his bowlers. He had little choice too once Cuffy was ruled out and Reon King lost his rhythm when saddled with responsibility. Corry Collymore is said to have reckovered from a thigh strain and becomes a key bowler in the West Indian attack tomorrow.

``Bowling has been a great asset for the team,'' remarked Ganguly, who has, in the process under-bowled himself. With a remarkably confident Harbhajan Singh ready to step in and check the run-flow at any given time, the Indian skipper has a wide range to pick from.

``The team's shaping well. I expect them to improve further,'' said coach John Wright, who has made each individual realise his specific role and potential. The coach has instilled a sense of competition within the ranks to keep the players on their toes and it is this healthy rivalry that has carried India comfortably into the title-round of this series.

Sachin on song

Sachin Tendulkar continues to be the strength of the Indian team, his scores of 70, 9, 81 and 122 indicating his excellent touch. He has been quick to adapt to the fact that he has to build his innings. ``Hang around as long as possible,'' is how he puts it. A long as he hangs around, the Indian innings can only flourish with others too joining the act.

Ganguly and Rahul Dravid do have their tasks cut out and the pressure on Hemang Badani and Sehwag would have mounted following their inconsistency. For Sodhi, every opportunity means a test to prove himself and he has, according to Wright, made a place with his splendid attitude.

The West Indians, on the contrary, have had a big attitude problem. ``It's something within the team,'' Cozier pointed out. The problems for Hooper have ranged from motivating the side to enforcing discipline. The team is clearly short on confidence. The youngsters appear withdrawn and the team is in dire need of leadership.

Hooper has the potential to lead by example. There have been some positive steps from Chris Gayle, Darren Ganga and Wavell Hinds, all young and all having made a decent start to their careers. The team is expecting Shivnarine Chanderpaul to make one big contribution at the right time and Hooper to show the way with his experience by batting higher in the order.

The organisers announced the final at the Harare Sports Club a sell out event. A full house and a cracker of a match would be a fitting finale for all those who have toiled to put up a grand show on Saturday. For them, it does not matter who wins-India or the West Indies. What matters is a good contest. And that is what the two captains have promised.

The teams (from):

India: Sourav Ganguly (Captain), Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Hemang Badani, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Sameer Dighe, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra, Harvinder Singh, Debasis Mohanty and Virender Sehwag.

West Indies: Carl Hooper (Captain), Chris Gayle, Darren Ganga, Wavell Hinds, Shivnarine Chanderpal, Ridley Jacobs, Marlon Samuels, Mahendra Nagamootoo, Mervyn Dillon, Corey Collymore, Colin Stuart, Reon King and Neil McGarrell.

Umpires: Messrs Ian Robinson and Russel Tiffin; Third umpire: Mr. G. Evans; Match Referee: Mr. Denis Lindsay. Hours of play (IST): 12.30 p.m. to 4 p.m.; 4.45 p.m. onwards.