Chance for big guns to swing into action

Chance for big guns to swing into action

Ricky Ponting’s Australia will offer the first of several stern tests in the weeks ahead, even if Sunday’s day-night encounter doesn’t enjoy official status. Not too much ought to be read into the outcome of the warm-up game, which will have no bearing on either confidence or on what could unfold at the World Cup proper; even so, there will be plenty to gain from a run out against the defending champions, not quite as formidable as they have been in the recent past and yet, as always, a team for the big occasion.

Quite a few of India’s big guns haven’t had a taste of competitive cricket for a while now. From that perspective, Sunday will assume a crucial hue because for the first time in more than one year, Dhoni will have the luxury of putting out a first-choice eleven minus Praveen Kumar, ruled out of the World Cup through injury. Of course, all 15 members in the squad can be fielded at various stages of the match and therefore the intensity and the focus might become diluted somewhat, but the fact that key figures such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir will all get quality batting time against a pace-heavy, redoubtable Australian attack should stand the Indians in good stead.
India are unlikely to use either Sunday’s showdown, or indeed Wednesday’s final warm-up game against New Zealand in Chennai, as selection trials of sorts. The broad outlook of the playing eleven has been reasonably clear for a while now; the two warm-up games will be used to reaffirm not just the first-choice names but also to tinker with and fine-tune strategies and game plans that in any case are dynamic, oft-changing phenomena.

A match situation will reinvigorate the competitive instincts of the group and keep them on their toes leading in to the tournament opener against Bangladesh on February 19, a game being touted as a revenge match of sorts following India’s shock loss to the same opponents on the same stage and at the same phase four years back.

India will play two of their six Group B league ties at the Chinnaswamy stadium, but it’s unlikely that they will benefit hugely from having spent the last four days in Bangalore, or indeed that they will be playing a warm-up fixture here. At best, the game will allow them to have first-hand knowledge of how much of a factor the dew will be, something that could become a crucial element at some stage of the World Cup.

Australia too have every reason to eye the warm-up tie with anticipation. For starters, it will mark Ponting’s first competitive game this year, and a lot of interest will centre around how the skipper comes through the test posed by Zaheer Khan and company. The finger injury that has kept him out of action for six weeks now hasn’t healed completely, but Ponting -- yet to lose a match as captain in the World Cup -- is a master at putting mind over matter.

The aura that surrounded the Aussies in the lead-up to previous World Cups is conspicuously absent this time. The retirement of a generation of legends, the destruction of their cloak of invincibility in the Ashes and the injury to Mike Hussey all mean Australia are at their most vulnerable going into the World Cup for the first time since 1996.

Not for nothing, however, are the Aussies the three-time defending champions. They have the personnel that can rise to a challenge; they will, though, desperately be seeking to make a statement in their two practice games, and if they can have a good outing on Sunday against the team many have installed as early favourites, it will send out a chilling message to the rest of the field. Warm-up tie, a friendly, an unofficial fixture -- call it whatever you like. It will not be short on intensity or competitiveness as Bangalore prepares to welcome the World Cup.

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