Cricket: Enter Flashing Blade and Silver Tongue

World Cup: Tendulkar and Ranatunga have flown in for a tournament they could make, if not win
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The Independent Online
SACHIN AND Arjuna arrived yesterday. They flew into England six hours apart and as soon as they landed they were deluged. For different reasons, Sachin and Arjuna have become two of the most renowned cricketers on the planet. One, who scores enrapturing centuries by the bucketload, is its best bastman, the other, who led his team to the glorious unparalleled heights as world champions, may be its best captain.

Their status can be measured by the simple yardstick of being two of the few sportsmen around who are instantly recognisable by their first names. Whenever they emerge nobody says: Sachin Who?" or "Arjuna Wotsit". This is partly because their first names are unusual, but mostly because Sachin Tendulkar and Arjuna Ranatunga have achieved great deeds.

They are here for the World Cup, which begins next month, Sachin with India and Arjuna with his champions, Sri Lanka and both should illuminate it. One of them was characteristically quiet and non-committal, the other gave a typical, twinkly, tour de force performance.

Sachin walked in front of his colleagues at Gatwick. It was his 26th birthday and he still looks about 18. He pushed his luggage trolley through the arrivals gate and he had not ventured 10 yards before the first autograph hunter approached. The first cameramen had preceded her by at least nine yards. Sachin signed and ignored the clicking shutters.

This is the way it is all the time in his life as the most famous man in India and the richest cricketer there has ever been. Actually, it was probably quieter than usual as he made his way across the airport lounge. Nobody attempted to mob him.

But there was still one huge question to be asked and it did not concern the quality of the birthday cake which Emirates Airlines had given him on the flight. Was he, the autograph hunter and everybody else wished to know, fit?

Tendulkar is one of the two or three most significant players in this World Cup. If he plays two or three big innings it will succeed, maybe regardless of how England do. But his defective back has forced him to miss India's last two one-day tournaments. There have been worries that the injury would take months of rest to repair. He had already flown to England, three weeks ago, to be treated by the orthopaedic surgeon, Ken Kennedy. Sachin merely smiled that boyish smile but his captain Mohammed Azharuddin was unequivocal. His star man was fully restored and would open the batting. No question.

And India were here to challenge. They had fast bowlers at last. They were sure of being able to compete. Azharuddin was cautiously optimistic. It was nothing to what Ranatunga had to say a few hours later along the motorway at Heathrow.

Here is a man who will defend his country and her cricketers to the hilt. He came in with that rakish, impish smile on his face. Nine teams could win the competition, he said. Pakistan were in form, so were India, South Africa were in good condition. "Perhaps they've peaked too early, we'll peak just right," he said.

Ranatunga acknowledged that Sri Lanka's form had been awful but they had won the tournament once, they were here to do it again. He was in merry mood until informed that Alec Stewart, the captain of England, who will be Sri Lanka's opponents in the first match of the tournament, has some cutting remarks about him in his new book, published tomorrow.

Stewart suggests that Sri Lanka and their captain push the laws to the edge to irritate opponents. On hearing this Ranatunga said: "I don't know how Alec Stewart can assess Sri Lankan cricket. He doesn't know Sri Lankan cricket. I know more about it. I don't think he can assess our tactics. It's a pity that he talks about it rather than looking after his own side. We don't talk about other sides. It's the way we've been brought up."

This was a perfect Ranatunga statement, irritating, designed to annoy England and anybody else listening. He and Stewart had a confrontation in the Australian one-day tournament earlier this year in the match at Adelaide when Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled for throwing. Ranatunga halted play for 15 minutes after the call, there were some extremely unsavoury clashes later and Stewart called Ranatunga a disgrace. Rantunga was subsequently fined by the tournament referee for his behaviour. Yesterday he did his impression of daring butter to melt in his mouth. That day in Adelaide a lot of things had been brushed under the carpet and Sri Lanka were not now going to wash their dirty clothes in public.

"We're here to play proper cricket," he said. As for the dispute in the Sri Lankan board, which has seen officials suspended amid allegations of vote rigging, he was not concerned. They were here for the cricket. He even had an answer for their bad form. At least the population no longer expected them to win every match. Expectations were not high. But Sri Lanka were a tough, side, make no mistake. Might just work.

Back at Gatwick, the world's best batsman (40 international hundreds) was again first out of the hotel and on to the waiting coach for the trip to Leicester where India are based. There they were, Sachin and Arjuna. Enjoy them.