Chester-le-Street (England): Two victories in as many matches and India has already established itself as firm favourite in the NatWest triangular One-day series, but it is likely to face a much stiffer challenge when it takes on England in the second round of league matches on Thursday.
The Indians are obviously very high on confidence after victories against England and Sri Lanka in their first two matches. Both the wins came while chasing targets, something that has traditionally been a problematic area for them, and under pressure scenarios. But England sent a warning signal to them with a stunning three-wicket win against Sri Lanka at Leeds on Tuesday. England pulled off one of the best run chases of all times in a rain-shortened match and that would definitely have infused truck loads of confidence in the side.
England has also been strengthened by the return of its most successful One-day bowler, Darren Gough, who missed his team's first two matches due to injury. Gough picked up three wickets in Tuesday' match and his performance would be vital for England on Thursday. However, unnerved by the task ahead, India was in a buoyant mood and celebrated an early birthday party for Ajit Agarkar and Harbhajan Singh. Agarkar and Harbhajan Singh may have been born on the same day, July 3, 1980 but they must be going through entirely different emotions on Tuesday. While Agarkar is virtually assured of his place in the side for Thursday's match, Harbhajan Singh realises that he might have to sit out once again as India looks set to retain its winning combination.
The wily off spinner played in India's first game against England at Lord's and went wicketless for 50 runs from his 10 overs. He was replaced by left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra in the second match as India went in with three medium pacers to exploit England's seamer-friendly conditions. The three medium pacers, Zaheer Khan being the third, did extremely well at The Oval and it is unlikely India would disturb the three-pronged pace attack. Although Anil Kumble, went wicketless in the two matches, according to all available indications the leg spinner will play in Thursday's game ahead of Harbhajan Singh.
However, the most refreshing thing to come out of the two matches has been the ability of the Indian batsmen to hold their nerves in pressure situations and anchor their side to victory. In both these chases, Yuvraj Singh played a pivotal role, winning the man-of-the- match award in the first game at Lord's. In fact, Yuvraj Singh has captured the imagination of the English fans and media with his fine performances. Dinesh Mongia, Mohammed Kaif and Virender Sehwag have also made important contributions to India's victories, both with the bat and in the field, not to speak of the experienced trio of Saurav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, all of whom have had at least one decent knock each.
Dravid has also helped the team's cause tremendously with his sterling performance in the dual role of a wicket-keeper/ batsman. He has so far effected five dismissals, some of which would have done genuine 'keepers proud, and Ganguly just could not help gushing over his new discovery. More than anything else, the victories in the two matches has given the side a belief in itself and that belief would be put to test against England. The host, on its part, would be believing that its defeat to India at Lord's was just an aberration and looking to continue its winning run in the season.
The team performed like a cohesive unit on Tuesday and, for once, the batsmen did not squander the advantage gained in the initial and middle overs. The most remarkable thing about this English side has been its fielding, with Nasser Hussain leading by example, and it has been in ample evidence in this tournament. Durham is hosting its first day-night match and is keen to justify its promotion to international ranks alongside England's more famous venues.