London:Grappling with an inexplicable lack of form, India face a daunting task to reverse their sliding fortunes in the absence of star performer Sachin Tendulkar in the high-profile ICC Champions Trophy where Australia start as overwhelming favourites.
Tendulkar will be missing a major tournament for the first time since making his debut in 1989 and his absence has come as a huge blow for a beleaguered India, desperate to make a mark in the 12-team championship beginning in London on Thursday with the hosts taking on Zimbabwe at Edgbaston.
Joint holders India will open their campaign in the tournament, billed as the 'Mini World Cup', with a match against Kenya on Saturday in Pool 'C' before taking on archrivals Pakistan on September 19.
While India's performance graph has taken a downward plunge in recent times, the spotlight will be on world champions Australia who would be looking to add the one missing title to their cupboard.
Thursday's other fixture will see New Zealand take on newcomers USA at the Oval.
Australia was upset by India in the first round in the first two editions of the tournament in Dhaka and Nairobi while they lost to hosts Sri Lanka in 2002. But this time Australian skipper Ricky Ponting is determined to win the prestigious title.
"We are pretty disappointed with the way we played in the Champions Trophy as this is the second biggest One-day tournament," Ponting said.
"We have won the World Cup and it would be nice to win the Champions Trophy as well. If we perform to our potential, we should be able to win," he said.
Two of Australia's main rivals -- India and Sri Lanka -- who were declared joint winners in 2002 after rains washed out the final, will be without their key players Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan.
While Tendulkar, the world's highest run getter in ODIs is out with an elbow injury, Muralitharan, who has the most number of Test wickets at 532, will miss the action as he is recovering from a shoulder injury.
Sourav Ganguly's side would now be looking for inspiration from Rahul Dravid, voted as the world's best player by ICC, and pace bowler Irfan Pathan, winner of the emerging talent award.
The team has done precious little to boost their confidence after their historic triumph in Pakistan in March-April suffering a string of defeats in the Asia Cup, the tri-series in Holland and the NatWest Challenge.
The four-match losing streak finally came to a halt at the Lord's when they beat England by 23 runs but only to lose the series 1-2.
But the Lankans will have to overcome hosts England to make the semifinals from pool D as only the pool winners progress to the last four.
England will fancy their chances in the tournament after posting an impressive ODI series win against India at home.
The Englishmen boast of arguably the world's best all-rounder in Andrew Flintoff, who won the award for the best One-Day player.
Michael Vaughan's highly rated team also relies on fast bowler Steven Harmison to provide vital breakthroughs.
In pool A, Australia will face a potentially tricky match against trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand on September 16 at the Oval. Newcomers USA are the third team in the pool.
South Africa will have to tackle an unpredictable and out of sorts West Indies in the first round in pool B, which has lightweight Bangladesh as the third team.
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