There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Asian teams were routinely labelled underdogs for tournaments like the ICC Champions Trophy, particularly if it was being held in South Africa. To be fair, we often lived up to that pre-tournament billing with uninspiring displays, and struggled with the alien conditions.
Fortunately, things have changed for Asian cricketers, who travel better these days and Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan all have real ambitions of winning the tournament.
Non-Asian teams have become much better at playing spin on the subcontinent and we, similarly, have adapted to playing pace on bouncier and quicker pitches. Some of that stems from improved skills and technique but mostly from our growing mental strength and confidence. Our aim was to learn how to win in all conditions against any opposition and we now believe we can achieve that.
While India must have been disappointed with their early exit from the ICC World Twenty20 in England, Sri Lanka and Pakistan kept the Asia flag flying. In the end, the variety of our bowlers and the natural flair of our batsmen made the best use of the conditions, albeit on pitches at Trent Bridge and the Oval that were quite slow and spin-friendly. The same could happen in South Africa.
It's very early to be playing international cricket in South Africa and you'd expect fresh pitches and pace bowlers running amok. But this is an international tournament rather than a bilateral series and the curators will have been given clear instructions to produce batting surfaces. With the modern technology of greenhouse pitches available to ground staff these days, as well as the dry highveld climate in Johannesburg and Pretoria, I don't think batsmen need be too worried aside for the odd late thunderstorm.
We've played both India and Pakistan in recent times and I think we have managed to close the gap that was between us with regard to the one-day format. After being in the doldrums for a while, Pakistan have been slowly getting their house in order while India are, deservedly, perched at the top of the ICC ODI rankings after a very impressive run since their ICC World Cup disaster.
India looked a little bit rusty at times during the recent tri-series back home - where the third team was New Zealand - but they saved their best performance for the final and we were outplayed fair and square. That win was fashioned from the blade of Sachin Tendulkar with a brilliant century, a master class in how to construct a match-winning century in a high-pressure final.
While India certainly have some talented players coming through, I think his presence, coupled with the return of Rahul Dravid, stiffens their batting line-up. Their vast experience and battle-hardened techniques, especially against fast bowling, gives them a more solid feel, especially in the absence of Virender Sehwag.
Sehwag, who has an excellent record in South Africa, is a huge player for India and he'll be sorely missed. The likes of Sehwag - or, for us right now, Tillekeratne Dilshan - are initiative-snatching players. They unsettle bowlers, pressurizing them into making mistakes. Within a few overs they've gifted you momentum and made the job for the rest of the batsmen so much easier. So, yes, Sehwag is a loss. Fortunately, though, India have plenty of batting stars and this facet of their game remains their strength.
Their bowling is strong, especially when Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh are fit and in form, but it is their batting that makes them so formidable. Their fielding, like ours and Pakistan's, remains an area that needs plenty of work. The fielding of both India and Sri Lanka during the earlier-mentioned tri-series was well below acceptable standards.
M.S. Dhoni is a captain I enjoy playing against and he's obviously a natural leader, a man that likes to lead from the front and a captain whose calm and unflustered demeanor feeds his players with confidence. He follows his instincts as a decision-maker and seems to be willing to make the tough choices that a captain sometimes needs to make.
Pakistan have a similarly charismatic leader in Younis Khan and seem to have gelled into a pretty cohesive side. We outplayed Pakistan in our recent Test series and also in our first three one-dayers to take that ODI series. However, they finished the tour on a high with three powerful performances that showed just how dangerous they can be when on-song. There is no doubt they are a mercurial bunch, totally and dangerously unpredictable. That makes them a team no one can make the mistake of taking lightly.
We, as a team, are also evolving quite nicely. We have been going through a period of transition in our one-day cricket for some time now and the results of that rebuilding are starting to be seen. We have a strong core of players to take us forward to the World Cup in 2011. After a few inconsistent performances in recent ODI tours and series I think we are improving.
The most promising development has been the growing strength of our middle-order. We were too reliant on our top-order and vulnerable if we lost early wickets but the reintegration of Thilan Samaraweera into the side has given it some stability and two youngsters, left-hander Thilina Kandamby and all-rounder Angelo Mathews, have impressed me with their attitude, commitment and mental strength.
Our bowling attack has been firing well for a while now. We have a great variety in our attack with different types of pace bowlers and spinners. We are blessed to have unique and unorthodox talents like Murali, Mendis and Malinga who give us a bit of the 'X-factor' in a tournament like this. Our bowling was excellent during the ICC World Twenty20 and I am hoping the same combinations will be similarly effective here. (Gameplan)