At his first official press conference in Belfast, Rahul Dravid was asked a question that would have left a lesser conversationalist bamboozled: “Are you going to captain the Indian team?”
Dravid, with a tiny smile, pleaded guilty.
This brief encounter illustrates how far — or how little — cricket has penetrated into the consciousness of the Irish, even the regular sports journalists. Cricket is a major sport here, but it is not quite Gaelic football or soccer or hurling, the staple of the sports fans here.
India’s long cricket summer, which found a brief pause after the searing heat of Bangladesh, resumes in frosty Northern Ireland on Saturday.
Though the first match (India vs Ireland) seems of minor importance — Ireland have only seven of their World Cup heroes in the current squad — it is indeed a significant preamble to bigger challenges for India. A frenzied year of non-stop cricket lies ahead.
After four games here, three of them against South Africa, India move on to the lone one-dayer against Pakistan in Glasgow. There is the Test and the One-day International (ODI) series after that, and then at least some of this squad will be off to South Africa for the Twenty20 World Cup. There’s more to come — at home against Pakistan (a full Test and One-day series) and seven One-dayers against Australia, before the forbidding tour Down Under. Enough cricket to make a few careers — or even break them.
So much cricket can indeed be dangerous.
Dangerous was a word that Dravid and his South African counterpart, Jacques Kallis, dwelt upon at some length when talking out their Irish hosts. “Any team can be very dangerous, especially the home team, in these conditions,” said Dravid. “Ireland reached the Super Eights at the World Cup, that gave us the opportunity to look at some of their players. We have some idea of what to expect. Having myself played in Scotland, for Scotland, I know that these conditions… it takes a bit of time to get used to them, especially for teams coming in from the subcontinent.”
However, more dangerous would be the South Africans, who are without Graeme Smith (recovering from a knee surgery) and Shaun Pollock (foot surgery). What they do have will give India enough cause to worry — Makhaya Ntini, Andre Nel and Dale Steyn are all there, and they love the conditions here.
Kallis talked about that as well. “This is my third visit to Ireland — very English conditions, we’re used to them!” Kallis said. “We have a good attack for these conditions.”
There was another spell of rain on Friday morning, it was overcast and the sky seemed overbearing. Though the sun made cameo appearances by noon and through the afternoon, the outfield was heavy, the pitch damp. We could see truncated games due to the rain.
Dravid said India had a couple of “issues”, one of them being Zaheer Khan, recovering from an injury. “After that injury, we’re just easing Zaheer into the tour,” said Dravid. “We’re looking at how he is progressing, we will assess things after this practice session and then decide what kind of combination we settle on.”
He indicated that there could be a toss-up between Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla. “But these conditions mean that people like Sourav and Sachin can bowl a bit of seam-up,” the captain added. Seeing that it’s Ireland they are starting against, Chawla could just get the nod ahead of the Mumbai offie.