Cricket World Cup: Warne's battle to tame Tendulkar

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The Independent Online
FORGET THE almost sudden death nature of Australia's encounter with India, the crux of today's match at The Oval is Sachin versus Shane. In other words, the world's best batsman against the planet's best spin bowler in a game neither can afford to lose.

One-on-one confrontations are what cricket is essentially about and none have been more pyrotechnic in recent times than the ones between these two. To date, Tendulkar has had a relatively quiet World Cup though, if anything can perk him up, the sight of Warne twirling his chubby wrist should do it.

That was certainly the case when these two teams last met in India just over a year ago, when Tendulkar scored over 850 runs in a month against the touring Australians. Beginning with an unbeaten 204 in Bombay, Tendulkar took three more centuries off them during the two Tests and three one- dayers that followed. Since then the two teams have met in Sharjah, where Tendulkar notched up 134 and 143.

It is a phenomenal record and, though all the Aussie bowlers bar Glenn McGrath (missing through injury) will have come under the cosh at some stage, Warne was singled out for some particularly rough treatment.

Mind you, without McGrath, Warne had to carry the attack at a time when his shoulder was just beginning to fall apart. Although India won four of those five one-dayers, Australia lead World Cup meetings by 4-2, two of the wins by a single run.

Nevertheless the extent of the carnage meted upon Warne was surprising. For a leg-spinner his one-day figures are exceptional. In 119 matches, Warne has taken 188 wickets at an average of 21.34. Contrast that with his stats against India - 10 matches, 8 wickets at an average of 54.87 - and you can see why Warne says he still has nightmares of Tendulkar charging down the pitch and smashing him about, seemingly at will.

Great players love the challenge of dominating their peers and Tendulkar actually made his intentions clear some time ago, so Warne cannot have been surprised by the attention. Before that Test series Tendulkar apparently hired Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, a former Test leg-spinner, to bowl at him for long periods in the nets. Not only that, he roughed the surface and practised hitting the ball against the spin. When it came to the Tests barely a mishit ensued as he blasted Warne over mid-wicket.

For the most part trying to dominate so completely is a sign of respect, but there is also an element of testing the bowler's nerve. Viv Richards used to do it as a matter of course and India's captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, reckons Tendulkar tries the same tactic.

"He likes to dominate the bowling, and why not," said Azha of his most precious asset. "Indians are good at playing spin. Warne is a great bowler and we respect him. But we tend to play him better than most. In any case I think he has lost some confidence since his shoulder operation."

In fact, Warne's shoulder is sore again and, although his captain Steve Waugh said he will play, he has not bowled for the last few days.

If the battle of wills between those two promises to be a fascinating one, it will not be given top billing on the speedster machine, now sponsored by FedEx, for the final stages of the competition. It should, however, tell Tendulkar, who could return to his opening spot, if Glenn McGrath's bowling is quicker than his wit.

McGrath, with the new ball once more his to dispense, appears to be back on top form and Tendulkar, as well as Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly, will have to get past him and one or two others before they can have a dart at Warne.

"We've got four or five good bowlers, who can bowl well at Tendulkar and not be overawed by it," said Waugh. "India have got some very good batsmen, you just can't amend everything to go after one player. In fact, others are in better form than him."

Slow to find their own form, the Aussies feel they are now fielding their best team. Earlier in the tournament, most of their problems stemmed from poor starts with the bat and from having to fudge a fifth bowler.

Indeed, like India, the gambit prevented them from taking points through to the Super Six stage, an error that essentially means they both have to win all their remaining games to reach the semi-finals.

If the batting problem is a case of fingers crossed, the second has been addressed and, since the losses to New Zealand and Pakistan in the group stage, both Tom Moody and Brendon Julien have joined McGrath, Warne and Damien Fleming as the main bowlers. India are likely to bolster their bowling, too, including Robin Singh in place of the opening batsman Sadagopan Ramesh.

Waugh is finding it a bit of an obstacle course filling the boots of his successful predecessor, Mark Taylor. To silence the doubters, Australia have to win the World Cup - and the real business begins today.

India (from): M Azharuddin (capt), S C Ganguly, S R Tendulkar, R Dravid, A Jadeja, S Ramesh, R R Singh, N R Mongia (wkt), J Srinath, A Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad, D S Mohanty.

Australia (from): S R Waugh (capt), A C Gilchrist (wkt), M E Waugh, R T Ponting, D S Lehmann, M G Bevan, T M Moody, S K Warne, B P Julian, D W Fleming, P R Reiffel, G D McGrath.