Reason No. 1: SACHIN TENDULKAR
Manmohan Desai once said that it was easy to name the top ten stars of Bollywood: Amitabh Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan....and Amitabh Bachchan. Likewise, it is tempting to call the "one-man army" as reasons 1-11 why we will win this tournament: Sachin, Sachin, Sachin...Sachin.
Hype? Heck, no. "Can India win the World Cup with Sachin Tendulkar?" was the question on "www.khel.com" and 5,197 of the 7,493 unique respondents said yes (69.4 per cent); 1,785 said no (23.8 per cent). Such is the onus of expectation on the 26-year-old and such is the implicit hope that he will come good.
"Sachin is Viv Richards, Mark Waugh and Brian Lara all rolled into one," says Azhar. "He will score a century, field like a tiger and, if you give him the ball, take wickets." Returning to the side after a back injury, he has a couple of points to prove: that he is now completely fit and that the old fire still burns. Sachin versus Alan Donald and Shaun Pollock in the Indians' first match on May 15 should be a sight to behold. Donald recently rated Sachin as his No.1 batsman. Also, watch out for Sachin vs Shoaib Akhtar if India bump into Pakistan.
The small grounds in England and the big stage should be to the little man's liking, given his ability to hoick the ball over the infield in the first 15 overs. But when Sachin says, "This World Cup will be won in the last 25 overs and not the first 25 overs," it's time to realise that this tournament won't be one of 270-plus scores. Beware: Adam Gilchrist and Sanath Jayasuriya.
A record 523 runs in the previous World Cup has already seen Sachin emerge a 12-1 favourite to become this tournament's top-scoring batsman before the first ball has been bowled. And having told the selectors that he would not want the captaincy back until after the Cup, there may be a third point to prove.
Reason No. 2: SAURAV GANGULY and RAHUL DRAVID
On paper, Sachin and Saurav are the most potent opening pair in instant cricket today, with a high average of 52.24 in 53 innings, higher than current hotshots Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist (40.77 in 35), and with an even more impressive record in the first 15 overs. But cricket, as Ian Chappell loves to point out, is played on the field, not on paper.
Even so, in England in the early part of the summer, where the ball moves around alarmingly, launching into the opposition will not be as easy as it is in the subcontinent, so Ganguly and Dravid will provide the consolidation that India will want should Sachin perish early. Something no other side can boast of. Proof: the '96 England tour. Ganguly averaged 105 in the two Tests and 95 overall; Dravid averaged 62.33 and 50.27.
"Ganguly emerged as a batsman of impressive technique and temperament. Dravid was not far behind," wrote John Etheridge in the Wisden Almanac. Add Pearce-Day: "The two new batsmen conquered the peculiar demands of English conditions as if they were born to the ever-changing weather they faced."
Shoaib Akhtar has revealed some chinks in his armour lately which doubtless the "Prince of Calcoota" will be out to remove, but rest assured, Ganguly will play Mohinder Amarnath's role by rolling his golden arm over as he fills up the fifth bowler's quota alongside Sachin, Robin Singh and possibly Ajay Jadeja.
Dravid, meanwhile, has consolidated his reputation as the side's best bet against quality fast bowling, his initial problems in finding the gaps and keeping the scoreboard ticking over in the one-day game have receded, and he is the world's number one batsman this year (average 47 in 15 games; strike-rate 80-plus).
"We're the third best team in the fray. If we can get our act together, there is no reason why we cannot repeat 1983," says Raj Singh Dungarpur, president of the Cricket Board.
Reason No. 3: 1983
Okay, the Indians have a post-'96 win-record of just 46.22%, above only New Zealand (41.54%), Zimbabwe (40.98%), Kenya (31.58%) and Bangladesh (5.56%). But don't worry, other top sides too are in the same boat: Sri Lanka 55.55%, Pakistan 52.36%, Australia 51.33%, West Indies 49%, England 46.94%. Only South Africa has a success rate well in excess of 75 per cent, winning 57 of their 75 games. But remember, how they choke when it comes to the crunch. Remember Calcutta '94, Hero Cup semi-finals? Remember Bombay '97, Titan Cup finals? Says Ashok Mankad: "In this World Cup, attitudes will far outweigh all intricate strategies."
Don't forget that Kapil's Devils too were on nobody's lips in '83. Okay, they did win a match against then reigning champions West Indies in the series before the tournament began. But then, so did Azhar & Co, albeit under Ajay Jadeja. They convincingly beat the '96 champions Sri Lanka twice in India recently. What's more, they even socked it to the '99 hosts, England, in Sharjah last month. You might say playing England in England is another matter, but consider: no host country has yet won the World Cup on its soil in any of the previous six editions.
"In the wealth of its experience and the promise of its youngsters, this team has something we lacked in 1983. That's why I see it coming up trumps," says Kirti Azad of the Team of '83.
Reason No. 4: SEAMS
LIKE WE'LL WIN
If there's just one certainty in this World Cup—aside from the fact that the Arctic winds will be the key—it's that speedsters, not spinners, will rule the roost. Tweakers have had a ball in the previous three tournaments, but back in the country where it all began, it's "advantage Dibbly, Dobbly, Wibbly, Wobbly".
Consider: in 37 one-day games in England in the last 10 years, out of the 513 wickets that have fallen, fast and medium-fast bowlers have snaffled 345 of them (67.25%) against just 106 for spinners (20.66%). Out of every 10 wickets, seven have fallen to fast/medium-fast bowlers, two to spinners, and one run-out.
So, it's advantage Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad in Ol' Blighty where they began hunting together three years ago (26 wickets in 3 Tests) inviting comparisons with Wasim Akram and Waqar Younus. Both have been in good form of late, Srinath 41 wickets from 26 games; Prasad 29 from 23.
"In England, around now, if you hit the seam on the wicket, the ball does the trick. Good line and length gets wickets. The faster one bowls on these wickets, the easier it is to play. All I did was cut down a bit on the pace and land the ball on its seam," says Roger Binny, on how he scalped 17 in '83.
So, it's advantage Ajit Agarkar whose strike rate (a wicket every 27.8 balls) is lower than only that of Alan Donald (23.3), and this at half the speed of 'White Lightning'. And then there's Debashis Mohanty, who excelled in similar conditions in Toronto.
The Indian bowlers can breathe easy as pinch-hitters who've been their bane lately are unlikely to be as effective in England with the ball seaming around. "Pinch-hitting can only be of limited effectiveness in England in early summer," writes Paul Newman in The Sunday Telegraph.
The big question mark though, hangs over Anil Kumble. Playing for Northamptonshire in '95, the leggie was the only bowler to get over 100 wickets. But on the '96 tour, his snaking, sliding topspinners and flippers fetched him just five in three Tests. Look at it this way, at his pace Kumble 'is' a medium-pacer!
"We have Sachin who can bat brilliantly in all conditions and we have Kumble whom the English conditions will favour. These two will bring us the Cup," says adman Alyque Padamsee.
Reason No. 5: bring in THE WARHORSES
Batting at the crucial No.5/6 position, fielding at point, bowling during the slog overs and leading the side off and on. Is there anything Ajay Jadeja can't do any longer without striking gold? The puny all-rounder (avg. 38.75) may be no patch on Michael Bevan's 102.20 average but compares favourably with peers like Neil Fairbrother (40.88) and Rhodes (22.37).
Likewise, Robin Singh, who like Azhar, only seems to be getting better with age. Conditions may not force the captain to rely on him as pinch-hitter, but if he should, India is in safe hands. Robin compares favourably with the best pinch-hitter in the business (Klusener) in terms of strike rate: 83.61 to 85.96.
"Sachin's presence after a well-deserved rest should rejuvenate the team. Ganguly and Dravid have proved themselves in England before. Azhar, Jadeja and Robin should bolster the batting. Our bowling is as good as any. Srinath, Prasad, Agarkar and Kumble—with help from Ganguly and Tendulkar—should do well," says Shantha Rangaswamy, the Kapil Dev of Indian women's cricket.
Reason No. 6: PEAKING NOW
Thankfully for India, all the other major contenders have already peaked. South Africa has beaten the West Indies. Pakistan has beaten India. Australia have thumped everybody. On the other hand, Azhar's boys have lost to Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Pakistan. The only way to go from there is up. Expectations are low, low, low. They are under pressure from nobody to deliver, except maybe sponsors who have hitched the brandwagon on to the stars. "The Indians have never been lacking in promise. What they need to do to repeat 1983 is translate potential into performance," says Abbas Ali Baig.
Between the last Cup and this, no country has played as much one-day cricket as India. So the conditions or the format should not pose too much of a problem. As Pearce-Day point out: "No country competing at England '99 has more experience of the cut and thrust of this form of cricket, be it in daylight or under floodlights." So it's plus-plus all the way. "Critics have been wont to write off the team. But I think India stands a reasonable chance of getting the coveted Cup. But it'll require something out of the ordinary," says Mid-Day editor Ayaz Memon.
Reason No. 7: NO WALKOVERS, BUT
South African stars Alan Donald and Jonty Rhodes are battling injuries along with Lance Klusener. Australia's one-day record under Steve Waugh is growing increasingly inconsistent. West Indies is still reeling under Carl Hooper's dramatic retirement. And Sanath Jayasuriya is desperately short of match practice after his recent injury and divorce.
Little wonder, twenty-three per cent of the respondents to a poll on the official World Cup site (www.lords.org) say India will win the Cup ahead of South Africa 15%, Australia 7%. Only Pakistan is ahead at 37% but, post-Javed Miandad, what is to predict their fortunes although Wasim Akram has been given sweeping powers with the ghost of match-fixing still hovering above?
"We certainly have a chance, and if we stay focused and fight like Pakistan, we can go all the way," says ex-athlete Ashwini Nachappa.
Reason No. 8: BOOKIES KNOW BESTOnly Australia is placed higher at 8-1. But Brian Lara has shown that Australia under Steve Waugh are a different kettle of fish.
Australia? Invincible? Who can forget the pasting Sachin gave Shane Warne & Co when they last toured here under the brilliant Mark Taylor. There's another psychological plus. 'Tubbie' Taylor is no longer at the helm. "Waugh may be the wrong captain," writes former England cricketer Mike Selvey in The Guardian.
Reason No. 9: CROWD SUPPORT
Playing in England is like playing at home for the Indians; only Pakistan and Bangladesh can count on similar support. For the first practice match India played on the tour, Indian Muslims in Britain backed Azharuddin, in opposition to a Pakistani player in the Leicestershire team.
The team united Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Gujaratis, Indians with Indian passports and Indians with British passports. They all actively opposed their local team—one that was of their nationality. That kind of vocal support will come in handy in the latter part of the tournament.
Reason No 10: AZHAR'S LUCK
England has rescued Azhar before: in '93 when the selectors had named him captain for only one Test after the disastrous South Africa tour, the Hyderabadi bounced back with a stunning innings in Calcutta. Will England come to his rescue again, now that the nation has seen what Jadeja can do as captain? "This is a better side in terms of talent than the '83 team. The Cup is ours if only...Azhar stepped down and allowed Jadeja to take over," says Tata Tea executive Bolin Bordoloi.
Given the inclement weather, most matches are likely to be rain-affected, which is where Azhar's luck with the toss will come in handy. "Azhar should choose to bowl everytime he calls correct," says Ashok Mankad. "I feel the rules for a truncated game favours the side batting second."
Reason No. 11: HOPE
Remember cricket's a funny sport, a game of "glorious uncertainties" where anything can happen—and usually does. Remember Shaffy Francis, the Mysorean who in '92 wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper? Pakistan were having a horrid run and about to get knocked out of the tournament in Australia-New Zealand before the rain gods intervened and gave them a vital point. "I've a dream," wrote Francis: "To see India beat Pakistan in this World Cup. And I've another dream: to see Imran Khan hold the trophy."
With Manu Joseph, B.R. Srikanth, Nitin A. Gokhale and Ashish Shukla/PTI