Cricket: England primed for Tendulkar trial

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The Independent Online
WHEN DISTILLED to its purest essence, today's match at Edgbaston is primarily about England's bowlers preventing India's batsmen from continuing their devastating form.

Both factions are in form, which should make for a keenly fought contest, the winner of which will take those precious points with them into the next round. Providing Zimbabwe do not stop the South African juggernaut, defeat is only likely to effect India should Kenya beat Sri Lanka.

India have so far scored 1,204 runs in this World Cup at an average of over six an over. All four centuries in the tournament have been made by India, two of them to Rahul Dravid and one each to Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, the latter also making 97 against South Africa. Perhaps more importantly, the success of the other two has brought confidence to a team mindful of their over-reliance on Tendulkar for its runs.

If there is some consolation for England's bowlers, it is that all the three-figure scores have been made against mediocre attacks. They would do well not to take too much succour though, for Tendulkar has reeled off 22 one-day centuries in 214 internationals.

Incredibly it was not until his 75th international that Tendulkar got off the mark, so to speak, while all but three hundreds have been scored in the subcontinent and its cricketing satellite, Sharjah. His record against England - two 50s from 13 matches - is not sparkling, but so few games barely make a relevant statistical sample. In any case, there are many who feel he is probably overdue, and the recent death of his father has, by all accounts, strengthened his resolve.

Revered as a deity back home - Indian fans able to touch him at Taunton proceeded to rub their faces as Hindus do in religious ceremonies - the 26-year-old Tendulkar is considered by many to be the best batsman in the world. Making an effort not to state the obvious, the England captain settled for something marginally less categoric. "He's a special talent, and one of the best I've ever seen," Stewart said.

His own captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, described by Stewart as one of the nicest people in the game, was equally lavish in his praise of the little master. "The way he copes with the adulation is fantastic. He comes from a very educated family."

By contrast Dravid, who made his Test debut against England at Lord's in 1996, has only recently come into the reckoning as a limited-overs player. Over the past year India have played 40 one-dayers, only 14 of them featuring Dravid.

This World Cup, with its emphasis on survival rather than strike-rates, has allowed technically correct batsmen like Dravid to prosper. He is not a quick scorer but he is not a blocker either, and Darren Gough and co will find his admirably straight bat equally adept at putting away the bad balls, something Sri Lanka found to their cost the other day.

Of the in-form trio, the left-handed Ganguly, scion of a wealthy Bengali printing magnate, is probably the most limited despite his 183 against Sri Lanka. A player who Dravid says is "the best off-side player after God", his penchant for that region has already been noted by England.

In the recent tour of Sharjah, where England lost both their matches against India, Gough twice dismissed him cheaply by coming round the wicket and cramping his style. Expect more of the same today, particularly if he gets going.

The reputation of the Edgbaston pitch means that England will not finalise their side until this morning. Yesterday the strip was hard, well covered with dry grass and featuring lengthways cracks running down it. With Warwickshire's Nick Knight reckoning it is better to lose the toss at Edgbaston because of the uncertain nature of the pitch, Stewart will probably not mind ending his successful four-match run with the coin.

Unless Stewart suddenly decides to pick six batsmen, or unless a fifth specialist bowler like Ian Austin replaces one of Andy Flintoff or Adam Hollioake, the team that beat Zimbabwe is the one likely to prevail. India are likely to do the same, going in with four specialist bowlers, while scrambling a fifth from Ganguly, Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja.

The opening attack of Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath are no slouches and with their high actions, both will be well suited to the pitch.

Anil Kumble, a man who once took 105 first-class wickets for Northamptonshire, is an experienced campaigner, while Devashish Mohanty bowls late outswing with a chest-on action. The main contest may be between English bowling nous and wristy Indian flair, but England's batsmen could also have a battle on their hands.