INDIA, people say, is a land of contradictions. They could well include the Indian team among those. The way they are playing this year, it is impossible to believe that they are the same outfit which limped along for all of 1997, a 12-month period when they seemed unable to do much right.
Is it just the new captain who has made the difference? Or is it the fact that India have had to play all their fixtures so far this year at home and on similar pitches to those which brought them great success a few years back? Will it all come unstuck when India leave their home shores and venture out?
Azharuddin's attitude is different this time, for sure; he's been on both sides of the fence and knows it all. He isn't much better as a captain but he is much more relaxed for he knows the best and the worst of playing cricket for his country. His appointment has left Tendulkar free to play his normal game and that is probably more of a plus for the team than anything else.
Home pitches have helped as well. The promises of preparing pitches which would help the Indian team to get used to the bouncier wickets abroad appear to have been forgotten (Kapil Dev was appointed as some kind of grounds czar just for this) and soft, slow wickets are still the order of the day. Probably, after the dismal showing of 1997, it was not possible to go through with this radical departure from the norm.
But this still is not sufficient to explain the Indian mood. There is one more factor that has not been noticed -- the fact that India are coming into this series and one-day competition after the longest period of rest they have had for a long, long time. The team has been around the globe for some time without a break and only after the Bangladesh tournament did they get some time to recharge their batteries. That has done them a world of good and, to my mind, is the single most important cause for their ascendancy.
Will the cricket administrators learn from this and keep India's commitments down to a number which will allow the team to have some breathing space in between? Or will the crazy scheduling which has marked the previous two years continue? The latter seems the more likely option even though nobody in India has anything to gain personally this time by committing the team to take on every outfit under the sun -- and some besides.
One hopes somebody notices and the cricket board does not take the fatalistic stance that "professionals have to perform whenever they are called upon to, else they shouldn't be in the business". Cricketers are human beings too and fatigue is something which makes anybody stale. A little time for introspection between tours will do the team more good than all the foreign coaches in the world could.