Kenya's fairy-tale faces reality check against India
Sourav Ganguly and his Indian lineup will be more surprised than anyone if Kenya continues its fairy-tale run at the World Cup and reaches the March 23 final.
India, on a seven-match winning roll, is against the African minnow in a semifinal at Kingsmead on Thursday. Kenya is the first non-test nation to reach the semifinals at a World Cup, and is concerned less about who it plays than how will it plays. The Kenyans managed something of a dress-rehearsal for the semis when they met India at Newlands, Cape Town, on March 7 in a Super Six match.
Although Kenya lost by six wickets, it took enough heart out of that game to lift themselves for a victory over Zimbabwe in Bloemfontein on March 12 to seal their place in the penultimate round.
Now, the thinking in the Kenyan camp is that a hard match against Australia in the final Super Six match of the tournament at Kingsmead on Saturday has prepared them for what seems to be an impossible task in the rematch with India.
However, the Indians have lifted themselves to a new level since their last match with Kenya, and look as if they can take on and beat any team.
"We still have a long way to go and, as is the case against any opposition and in any circumstance, we have to achieve our game plans and play well," said India coach John Wright. "If we do that the result will take care of itself.
"We are really trying to focus on our preparations, we want that to be as good as we can get it and want this to be the best prepared unit for any game thus far in the World Cup."
"We have the best batting lineup in the world," said offspinner Harbhajan Singh. With Sachin Tendulkar spearheading that lineup with a World Cup record 586 runs so far, there aren't many who'd disagree.
Ganguly and Virender Sehwag add extra explosiveness, while Rahul Dravid brings solidity to the middle order in an extraordinarily well-balanced batting list.
The real revelation for the Indians has been the ability of their fast bowlers to effect an early breakthrough throughout the tournament. With the "old man" Javagal Srinath at the helm, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan have developed into genuinely quick bowlers. While they may not have the extreme pace of a Brett Lee or a Shoaib Akhtar in their makeup, they are quick enough to hurry even the best batsmen into bad strokes.
And it is precisely there where the Kenyans will have to dig deep.
Of their top batsmen, none of the Kenyans has been particularly consistent here.
Kennedy Otieno was the man who got runs against India in Cape Town. His 79 there will have given him confidence against the Indian opening attack which was unable to break the Kenyan opening stand.
Skipper Steve Tikolo batted himself back into form with a determined 51 against Australia, and, as Kenya's best batsman, it is almost imperative that he succeeds if Kenya is to get into a winning position.
Maurice Odumbe and Thomas Odoya are both hard-hitting batsmen who can lift the run rate in the latter stages of an innings, but they will need a platform laid for them by Otieno, his fellow-opener Ravindu Shah, who scored 46 against Australia, and Tikolo. Kenya's bowling depends heavily on varied pace. Opening bowler Martin Suji, although he taken only nine wickets in the tournament so far, is economical, and can keep batsmen in check in the initial 15 overs.
The find of the tournament, as far as Kenya is concerned, has been legspinner Collins Obuya. The 21-year-old has taken 13 wickets for 396 runs, and he only looked vulnerable against Australia. "I have seen him grow up into a good player, and I'm sure he will be able to bounce back from that bad day," said Tikolo. He will have to be at his best against the Indian batsmen, who are perhaps the best players of spin in the world.
Kenya coach Sandeep Patil, a member of India's World Cup-winning squad from 1983, says he feels very much as he did when he was part of that surprise victory.
"People have labeled Kenya reaching this stage a big surprise, but it is the result of hard work by every one of the boys," Patil said.
Kenya advanced to the second round with wins over Canada and Bangladesh, an upset over 1996 champion Sri Lanka at Nairobi and a forfeit by New Zealand, which refused to travel to the Kenyan capital on safety concerns.
With points against fellow qualifiers carried into the second round, Kenya needed only to win one match to secure a spot in the semis. Which was a good thing, as India and defending champion Australia stood in its path. A first win ever against Zimbabwe propelled the Kenyans into the semis.
India, after a sluggish start against Netherlands and a nine-wicket loss to Australia on Feb. 15, have gone from strength to strength in the last seven matches, including a 183-run over Sri Lanka and a lopsided win over New Zealand in its last two matches. Patil refused to be drawn on what he considered the weakpoints of India.
"That would be revealing my gameplan," he said. "Just say I am plotting their downfall."
In the end, it will be the element of surprise which the Kenyans bring into every match which can make their dreams come true.
India (from): Sourav Ganguly (captain), Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Dinesh Mongia, Parthiv Patel, Sanjay Bangar, Ajit Agarkar, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif
Kenya (from): Steve Tikolo (captain), Thomas Odoyo, Maurice Odoyo, Martin Suji, Kennedy Otieno, Hitesh Modi, Ravindu Shah, Tony Suji, Peter Ongondo, Collins Obuya, David Obuya, Joseph Angara, Brijal Patel, Asif Karim, Alpesh Vader
Umpires: Steve Bucknor, West Indies and Daryl Harper, Australia
TV umpire: Simon Taufel, Australia
Match referee: Mike Procter, South Africa