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A mix of camaraderie and competition

Mahendra Singh Dhoni smacked Mohammad Rafique's first ball to him in the nets hard back over the bowler's head for a nonchalant dinger, like he was one of the young net boys also bowling to him, and it could well be symbolic of the casual air that pervades the 2007 Afro-Asia Cup.

It's off season for many teams, cricketers already complain about having to play too much cricket, and critics have been quick to question the commitment of the players when handpicked to play together in a tournament like this. A lark in the sun, one highly amused journalist said as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

Mahela Jayawardene, captain of the Asia XI, is well aware of the public perception but he cut a confident figure as he addressed the media after a nets session. "I've played in the last Afro-Asia Cup and quite enjoyed it," he said. "We played good cricket in Africa. It's good to see your opponents in a different way, how they interact and apply themselves in the dressing room, and how they handle different situations. There's a lot you can learn."

But did the ICC jump the gun in granting status for a series with hardly any advertising or pre-game enthusiasm? "When you start off its hard to judge," said Jayawardene. "It's still early days in this kind of tournament, but it's healthy to get together like this at this level. We are happy to be here and hope to play good cricket."

Roger Binny, the coach of the Asia side, felt the tournament still had enough pull to it. "We still have got some big players in both sides," he said. "One cannot really blame the players as they have prior commitments. We had foreseen this problem."

Jayawardene has a tough job on his hands just deciding the composition of the Asian XI. The side has four openers - Virender Sehwag, Upul Tharanga, Sourav Ganguly and Sanath Jayasuriya - and a whole quartet of pace bowlers to pick from. "I tried going over the team yesterday, and got nowhere. Even with the pull-outs and injuries we have a very good team," said an amused Jayawardene. "It depends on what is best for our Asian XI. We have to get the best combination to face the Africans. We have back-to-back games in Chennai, so maybe we can rotate the fast bowlers. Like I said, I had a tough time deciding the make-up of this team yesterday." Then, breaking into a broad smile - he all but nudged Binny to his right - he quipped: "I think I've decided to leave that to the coach."

Motivation, Jayawardene said, should not even be an issue. "For me it's to see how far I can push myself. As for motivating the others, I tell all the players what is required. See, we're not playing for our countries, we're representing Asia. There are more than just one million people backing us this time. It's a great honour to lead the Asia team. We speak different languages and come from different countries but cricket speaks a global language."

On paper, the Asian side outweighs the African one, despite the absence of some big names. Kemp, captain of the African XI, has other worries. Makhaya Ntini, the only fast bowler with serious international success, has stayed home "for personal reasons" and Kallis is absent, which means the pace bowling resources equate to Thomas Odoyo, Peter Ongondo, Andrew Hall and the rookie Morkel brothers, Albie and Morne. Shaun Pollock has already said he won't bowl at all but it is likely that he will bat down the order to boost a depleted batting line-up.

Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, admitted the handicap but chose to find a positive for the youngsters. "This is our chance to play our young guys, and a great opportunity for them. We can scope out our youngsters before we play India in Ireland. The Kenyans and Zimbabweans are highly enthusiastic about this series. They have a hunger to play which will proceed out to the field. This is also a good way to raise money for Asian and African cricket."

Bangalore is hot at this time of the year. Bottles of water and energy drinks kept being passed on to the Asian and African contingents at different ends of the ground. "As a player, conditions definitely matter. Over the last five years fitness levels have improved and the challenge now is for players to adapt and deliver in tough conditions," said Jayawardene.

While Jayawardene didn't know how to comment on the pitch or respond to one journalist's query as to an expected total batting first, the surface at the Chinnaswamy Stadium looks hard-baked and full of runs.

During a restrained but lively bowling session from Mohammad Asif - where the pace bowler hit an excellent length repeatedly - Yuvraj Singh and Jayawardene were squared up a couple times each. Four or five balls were driven hard. Aside from that, Asif induced a few plays-and-misses from the batsmen he bowled to.

Mohammad Yousuf, who looked more at ease against the pace bowlers than against Harbhajan Singh, took a breather after his brief batting session. "The chance to play with others players from Asia is an experience in itself," he said. "These matches are the equivalent of one-day internationals, so there's no question of motivation. The energy levels are good in the team." As Yousuf headed inside the pavilion for a breather, Dhoni belted Rafique higher and harder for a six over long-off.


Asia XI: (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 4 Sourav Ganguly, 5 Mohammad Yousuf, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Mashrafe Mortaza, 9 Mohammad Rafique, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Mohammad Asif.

Africa XI (probable): 1 AB de Villiers, 2 Vusi Sibanda, 3 Boeta Dippenaar, 4 Steve Tikolo, 5 Justin Kemp (capt) 6 Mark Boucher (wk), 7 Thomas Odoyo, 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andrew Hall, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Peter Ongondo.

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