Sharjah: Zimbabwe might seem to be lightweight opponents, but Saurav Ganguly and his men cannot afford to take them lightly as an adverse outcome in Thursday's crunch tie in the second phase league of the Coca Cola Cup tri-series could spell doom for the Indian aspirations.As India take to the field for back-to-back league matches against Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka (Friday) after a three-day break, their batting will be depleted with vice-captain Rahul Dravid going back home with a fractured finger.
He suffered the injury in the last match while trying to lap up Zimbabwe opener Alistair Campbell at slips in the very first over bowled by Zaheer Khan. Dravid's place in the squad has been taken by Mohammad Kaif.The presence of ace leg-spinner Anil Kumble, with a bruised shoulder, is also doubtful. ''We would not like to risk him with a long series ahead,'' skipper Ganguly said casting a doubt on his playing Thursday's match. In the last match, left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi played instead and bowled admirably, but the skipper had said that given a choice between the two spinners, he would prefer Kumble.In any case, India will rely on seamers as the captain had pointed out. ''We will play three seamers as spinners cannot be effective on this track,'' he said. Zaheer Khan will have to carry a lot of responsibility on his young shoulders.
Venkatesh Prasad should be aiming for victims having failed to strike in the last match.Though the Indians won their last league match against the same opponents, the margin of victory (13 runs) left much to be desired. And this came after India's shock defeat against Zimbabwe by four runs in last year's World Cup. Any Indian fan would not love a cliff-hanger against a team like Zimbabwe, at least going by the relative strength of the two sides on paper.India's loss by five wickets to Sri Lanka in the opener raised some eyebrows, coming as it was after the team's marvellous show in Nairobi. But the Indians came back in the tournament in the second match and should have no problems reaching the final.Ganguly took a surprise by decision sending his deputy Dravid to open the innings with Sachin Tendulkar and himself came at number four in the last tie and the batsman obliged with a patient 85 as India lost some wickets in quick succession.
Now with Dravid's departure, Tamil Nadu opener S Sriram is likely to partner Sachin with Ganguly averse to open on this wicket. ''It has to be either Sriram or me (as an opener),'' he said. Ganguly said no change wascontemplated for Tendulkar.Vinod Kambli has a tough job at hand to show up with some runs. He has been struggling with his form and fortunes. In the first match he was run out for 12 and in the second a short ball did him in as he tried to pull. He should take the captain's advice to prolong his stay at the wicket.
Though Kambli also has a bruised left-arm, he is fit to play.The way Zimbabwe chased a total of 265 in the previous tie, India would have to aim for a total of around 275, if batting first, to feel safe.Zimbabwe will depend on opener Alistair Campbell and left-handed batsman Andy Flower who has been in good nick here scoring anunbeaten 120 and 63 in the two outings. Dirk Viljoen has shaped as auseful all-rounder for them.But their stress will be on bowling as skipper Heath Streak, himself a new ball bowler, said. They conceded 55 runs in the last five overs against India and that proved too expensive in the final analysis. Coach Carl Rackemann also tried to tighten up the fielding during the two-day break they have had.
The teams: India (from): Saurav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, S Sriram, Vinod Kambli, Yuvraj Singh, Robin Singh, Vijay Dahiya, Ajit Agarkar, Sunil Joshi, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Venkatesh Prasad, Mohammed Kaif and Hemang Badani.
Zimbabwe (from): Heath Streak, Alistair Campbell, Stuart Carlisle, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Dirk Virjoen, Bryan Strang, T J Friend, Paul Strang, Guy Whittall, D Marillier, M Mbangwa, Mluleki Nkala, Trevor Madondo and Mark Vermeulen.
Umpires: Steve Dunne and G Sharp.
Third umpire: D Harper.
Match referee: Denis Lindsay. UNI