India on the brink of ending away series losing streak

Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2002, 20:22 [IST]
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London: Sachin Tendulkar's 100th Test match could be an equally memorable occasion for the Indian side as a whole if it can beat England and so clinch its first series outside the sub-continent in 16 years. India goes into Thursday's series decider here at The Oval level at one apiece in the four match campaign and with the momentum behind them following last month's crushing innings victory in the third Test at Headingley. By  contrast, England has been so beset by injury problems that it has called up Essex all-rounder Ronnie Irani - who played his last Test three years ago - into its squad. However, while England's Madras-born captain Nasser Hussain could have been accused of playing 'mind games' when he said all the pressure was on India following its emphatic win, he nevertheless had a point. During the past 15 months India has gone into the final Test of a series away to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies with a chance to come out on top only to fall at the final fence. Tendulkar, who at 29 is set to become the youngest cricketer in history to play in a hundred Tests, is well aware of the challenge. "It is important. We have been trying for so many years to win a series overseas and now the time has come where we stand a chance and a fair chance, I would say. "The last Test match was very good, the ideal Test match one would hope for," he added. "It was the complete team effort so I think that was a perfect Test match. I would say it was the best Test match I have played in." If Headingley was a perfect Test match for India with its three leading batsmen - Rahul Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar - all making centuries while left-arm quick Zaheer Khan and spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh showing their class with the ball, then it was a nightmare for England. Its bowlers failed to make the most of English seamer-friendly conditions while its batsmen, Hussain's defiant second innings century barring, never looked like staving off an innings defeat. Injuries, which have disrupted England's plans throughout the summer, have again given Hussain a headache. Fast bowler Darren Gough (knee) is still sidelined while key batsman Graham Thorpe has yet to return following personal problems. Now, for this match, England will also be without all-rounders Andrew Flintoff (groin) and Craig White (abdominal tear). With England not selecting a second specialist spinner to back up left-armer Ashley Giles, despite the turn traditionally offered by Oval pitches, it has kept the emphasis on having a seventh batsman who can also bowl. To that end the selectors have recalled Essex captain Irani and he now appears to be competing with Derbyshire captain Dominic Cork, another hard-hitting batsman and medium-pace bowler, for a place in the side. Irani has been out of action for a fortnight after having surgery on his right knee. But Irani, who went to the trouble of seeing a specialist in Munich on Monday, insisted he was fit for five days of Test action. "If I had even a small percentage of doubt I wouldn't be here," he said. "You can't risk your international career - this is a big game and you've got to bust a gut to make sure everyone is fit and ready, but I wouldn't be able to take that chance. "I've done everything I possibly could to test whether I'm fit for this match." If he does play, Irani will hope to erase the painful memories of his last Test, also at The Oval, against New Zealand three years ago. Back in 1999 England was booed of the pitch by its own fans after losing eight wickets for 39 runs as the Kiwis clinched a well-merited victory. After that match Irani began an international exile that did not end until this season's One-day series. As well as Irani, England also has fitness worries over opening batsman Marcus Trescothick. The Somerset left-hander has been one of England's major success stories during the past 12 months but only returned to action in Saturday's Trophy final after breaking his thumb fielding in July. But Trescothick is still expected to replace Kent novice Robert Key. "If I was pushed I would say I'm more likely to play than not," said Trescothick. "Once you get through the pain barrier it seems to be all right." For England, as well as India, this match has significance beyond the present series. On Tuesday the England selectors name their squad for the forthcoming Ashes tour of Australia. But, if England loses at The Oval, its belief that it can beat the world champions for the first time since 1986-87 will be severely dented.

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