So much has already been said about the Indian cricket team chosen to do battle at the cricket World Cup that yet another round of post mortem didn’t seem appealing enough. Mind you, this feeling of ennui had nothing to do with the fact that as a nation we adore debate or that everything that could be spoken and written about Team India has already been done.
It was more about a sense of deja vu. For, prior to India’s triumph at the Lord’s in 1983, we hardly ever discussed the pros and cons of our national cricket team. Sunny Gavaskar’s painful 36 runs in 60 overs, Bishen Bedi’s attempt to ‘buy’ wickets in the limited overs game and our regular ultra slo-mo fielding efforts meant that India stuck out like a sore thumb in the ODI format.
Thanks to Kapil’s Devils, who turned world beaters despite being no-hopers four weeks prior to June 25, 1983, the team selection became as important as a one-day encounter. That no Indian team managed to win back the trophy since that balmy Sunday evening at the Lord’s, hasn’t in any way diluted the debate on team selection or highlighted its futility.
In the past 27 years, six teams have been chosen to represent India at the tournaments. Amongst them, only one managed to make the finals where they lost to a team that was arguably at the peak of its abilities. Each of these teams were ripped apart by critics and armchair experts though it was only in 2007 did we really plumb to the lows of the pre-1983 days.
One look at the current situation and it is not hard to fathom that nothing has changed. Once again the selection panel, this time headed by a man who was the top-scorer in the edition that India won, has put forth a list of 15 players who would joust with 13 other teams for getting their hands on the silverware.
On paper, the team looks strong as a nail. Add to this, the fact that we would be playing in our backyard and the stakes rise further for India doing an encore of 1983. Any batting line-up that boasts of one-day cricket’s only double-centurion, has to be among the best. And if the world’s most explosive batsman (Virender Sehwag) opening with Sachin Tendulkar, every bowler worth his swing has to quake in his boots.
Bring in the one-day equivalent of India’s “Great Wall” at Number three (Gautam Gambhir) to be followed by the man who is the only player in the history of cricket to hit six sixes in a single over in an international game featuring a test team (Yuvraj Singh) and you have the core of a batting line-up that is virtually unshakeable.
In case any of the above has an off day, you have the likes of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina ready to belt the cherry with Yusuf Pathan patiently waiting in the pavilion to “finish” off the opponents in what is most likely to be a tournament where batsmen will dominate and bowlers will be reduced to mere canon fodder and hardly need a mention.
Given this happy scenario, one finds it difficult to focus on media reports about selectoral glitches that question the choice of a leg-spinner who can bat over a fast bowler currently in his element or a stylish batsman who can bowl off-spin and also keep wickets if required. Now that Piyush Chawla is in, Messrs Sreesanth and Rohit Sharma have to wait for four years!
While individual selection can be debated without a conclusion, the issues that present a concern and possibly exposes the soft underbelly beneath Team India’s tough exterior are more strategic in nature. One recalls former captain Mohd. Azharuddin’s often cryptic comment after a loss… “We batted badly, we bowled badly, we fielded badly… We lost.”
From a batting perspective, India continues to rely heavily on its opening pair of Sehwag and Sachin, who between them had only played four matches on home territory during 2010. While their ability to clobber the ball is hardly in doubt, what needs to be seen is how well the duo can sustain the rigors on their bodies. One is coming back from surgery while the other is not getting any younger and may just require the occasional off day to rejuvenate himself.
This shifts the focus on to numbers three and four that is likely to be manned by Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh. While the left-handed opener seems back in decent form, the same cannot be said of Yuvraj whose batting average has slipped to below the 30-mark in the 20 matches he played last year. The heartening fact though is that Yuvi did better on home ground.
And now comes the difficult task for skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who may do well to come in number five and play the finisher role that came so naturally to him in his early career. That being so, the skipper will have a problem deciding whether to bank on an in-form Virat Kohli or the out-of-form but more experienced Suresh Raina.
Given the recent form of Yusuf Pathan, where do they play him? The last ODI against South Africa was a case in point for pushing up this six-hitter in the batting order so that his natural aggression can be tempered by the presence of another accomplished batsman at the other end and not a bowler who can throw his bat around.
A crucial factor in this equation will be the over-dependence on the top-three in the line-up as the ones below have been having a none-too-happy time at the crease of late. Of course, there is every chance that playing in one’s backyard could bring about a change of fortunes, but then getting the right combination may still be a challenge for Dhoni.
If the batting looks fairly settled, the bowling department seems to be a case of choosing between the devil and the deep sea, given that the selectors have been unable to find that one bowler who can control the flow of runs in the death overs. On their present form, none of the seven selected in the side has a below-five economy rate in the matches played over 24 months.
While Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh should end up playing all the matches, the toss-up will have to be between Ashish Nehra, who has taken early wickets to Munaf Patel who seems to have a better record of bowling at the death. If Dhoni picks Nehra, he will have to forego Praveen Kumar who generally gets whacked around in the end overs.
That brings us to back-up spinners who have been chosen for the tournament. Playing three medium pacers on Indian conditions may defy logic but the option that the selectors have left Dhoni is to either opt for rookie Ravichandran Ashwin or turn to the marginally more experienced Piyush Chawla.
Between the two, Ashwin had a better year in 2010 having bagged 14 wickets in seven ODIs with an economy rate 4.92 compared to the leggie who last played for India two years ago (that is if you discount his insipid display in the last ODI at Port Elizabeth that India lost to concede the rubber to South Africa.
Given this choice, it would not be surprising if Dhoni decides to play Raina at Number 8 and hope to eke out the fifth bowler’s quota from him, Pathan and Yuvraj with Virat Kohli and Sehwag also chipping in with an over or two of the same fare. Better have batsmen who can set the target or chase it down in lieu of bowlers who may have more than one off-day!
Another crucial factor that Dhoni will have to consider while selecting his playing eleven will be the choice of fielders that he would want to hide during the match. And this is where the headache will begin for the Indian captain as most of his bowlers, save for a vastly improved Harbhajan Singh, are quite slow across the turf.
Having a Munaf Patel or an Ashish Nehra on the boundary can only ensure safety when the ball is skied. Getting them to dive to stop a ball at mid-on or mid-off would mostly result in the batsman getting an easy boundary. And things do not change very drastically if the above two are replaced by the younger Ashwin or Praveen Kumar.
There is always the option of pushing the fleet footed ones like Kohli and Raina to the outskirts but that raises the question of sharp catching in the circle. Yuvraj Singh is the only one who fits the bill despite showing signs of slowing down with his reflexes in the key cover point position.
At the end of the day, it looks as if the message from the selectors is clear. Load the team with batsmen and blast the rivals for as many and more. But, this means winning the toss and batting first and for that to happen, skipper Dhoni may yet need the services of that ‘toss coach’ we spoke about in jest some weeks ago!
The source of this blog is MSN Sports and livecricketnewz.blogspot.com.