February 07, 2006

How all round cricket will define some careers and one-day cricket .
By Gaurav Sethi

Surprise. India lost the first ODI to Pakistan, albeit on the D/L method by 7 runs. Surprise. India scored less than 5 runs an over in the last 5, after reaching 305 in the 45th. Surprise. Tendulkar scored another hundred in yet another lost game. Surprise. Irfan Pathan was promoted to 1 down and gave the innings momentum after Sehwag went early. Surprise. Dhoni came at 2 down and added further impetus to the innings. Surprise. India lost 6 wickets for 23 runs in the last 4.5 overs. Surprise. Indian was bowled out with 2 balls to spare. Surprise. India’s two tormentors, Naved-ul Hasan and Mohammad Asif took 7 wickets between them.

Looking at the Indian innings, it won’t take Richie Benaud to figure out that the last 5 overs cost them the game. There was no firepower left once Yuvraj (the last of the big hitters) got out. The slog overs were left to the mercy of Dravid, Kaif and the bowlers. One can argue that Agrakar has scored a test hundred and Zaheer slogs big sixes; but it’s worth looking at the oppositions and the context of the games when these super knocks were played. Regardless of what the pundits once said, today, Agarkar is not considered an all-rounder, not even in jest. Not even by his Mumbaiya mentors. His standing as a batsman is a shade better than Zaheer, Bajji and Kumble, but nowhere in the ballpark of Irfan Pathan.

Even though Agarkar’s initial discipline was of a batsman, today, ‘Ajit’ is no ‘Lion’ with the bat. It’s easy to forget he once scored the fastest 50 by an Indian off 21 balls, that too, against a full strength Zimbabwean team. It’s easier to remember his record 7 ducks down under – one of them when he desperately charged Mark Waugh, only to be stumped at sea. It’s easy to forget the same lanky lad was the hottest ODI bowler going around – didn’t he set the record for the fastest 50 ODI wickets. But then what happened? Did the body give up? Did the captain lose faith? Was the competition too hot?

It might be interesting to compare Irfan Pathan’s short yet burgeoning career graph with that of Ajit Agarkar’s - it’s incredible but Agarkar who made his debut way back in 1998, and Pathan, who made his as recently as December, 2003, have nearly played the same number of test matches – 26 and 21, respectively. Through his scattered test career, Agarkar has taken a measly 58 wickets at a dismal average of 47. Where as Pathan has taken 81 wickets at a shade over 29 a piece. In the shorter version, Agarkar has played 151 games, taken 234 wickets @ 26 while Pathan has played 49 ODIs, taken 79 wickets, also @ 26 a piece.

The gap between the two players is even bigger in batting - Agarkar’s test and ODI averages are just about 16, where as Pathan’s is 29 in tests and 26 in ODIs. In about 1/3rd of the ODIs played by Agarkar, Pathan already has more 50s (4 vs. 3), while in tests Pathan has scored 5 50s (highest 93) to Agarkar’s 1 hundred, and no 50s. You can say that Pathan has been given more opportunities, but who’s counting? A player has to finally grab what comes his way.

In a way, Agarkar’s career appears a lot like that of Abdul Razzaq’s – both players have been around for ages, but have somehow always been in and out of the team. Though in Razzaq’s case, his ascendancy as a batting all-rounder, has off late, greatly reduced the workload on his military medium bowling (good enough for the Indians at Karachi). So even though Razzaq has only 86 wickets in 39 tests @ 37 a piece, his batting average of 29, is more than acceptable, especially since he started playing match saving innings against India.

For Agarkar the match winning innings seem like years away. Today, with the ouster of Ganguly, he might have the backing of Chappell and Dravid; but he also has young guns like RP Singh and Sreesanth pushing him for a place in the team. Not to forget, poster boy Zaks (alias Zaheer Khan), who is making a comeback of sorts.

This sortie of ODIs in Pakistan might well be make or break time for Ajit Agarkar. And to make his mark and ensure his ticket to Windies 2007, Agarkar will have to shine with more than just the ball. Not that any bowler is expected to shine in the ODI series.

For, if one goes by the Chappell-Dravid experiments, don’t be surprised if Agarkar finds himself walking out at 2 down one of these days. Who knows, Agarkar may just have it in him to make the other ‘kar’ players from Mumbai proud.

Often, Gavaskar has on air, backed Agarkar’s capabilities, and questioned the captain’s field placements – especially when Ganguly expected Agarkar to consistently bowl the off stump line to a demanding 7-2 field. SMG has also gone on record, frequently applauding Agarkar’s brilliant match winning 6-wicket haul down under (6 for 41) in the unforgettable series of December, 2003.

In the same match, another lanky lad made his test debut. And though he took only one wicket, compared to Agarkar’s total tally of 8, the beginning of a new era in Indian cricket started that day. Enter Irfan Pathan.

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