November 07, 2006

Stuck Records in Cricket.

Play it again Greg, Imran and Barry.

Barry Richards hailed South African wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, as the ultimate scrapper - “if you cut off his arms and legs, he’ll still bite you”. Boucher along with Kemp turned the Champions Trophy match v/s Pakistan on its head. It was clear from this innings as from South Africa’s world record chase v/s Australia, when in a scrap, Boucher’s the man. Barry Richards reiterated his “scrapper” point throughout Boucher’s innings. From a precarious 41 for 5, when Boucher came in, to 200 plus, Richards continued to make this one point.

Just like in every interview, article and commentary stint, Imran Khan (since India’s tour of Pakistan) harps on about Younis Khan’s greater value at No.3, both in tests and ODIs. And even though the makeshift Pakistani captain had a dismal Champions Trophy, one doubts it’ll derail Imran Khan’s one-track mind.

Now, neither Barry Richards nor Imran Khan care much for vague metaphors or hyped-humour. Yet their ideas invariably provoke thought. Only the other day, Imran Khan wrote –“I was dropped immediately after my debut and it took me three years to come back into the side…looking back, my ability to analyze my game is what made me fare better than some of my more talented contemporaries. A similar situation faces Pathan…” By the way, analysis is also Imran’s remedy for failed sub-continental teams in the Champions Trophy. And though they all belong to the region, Imran feels each teams analysis will be unique.

Imran Khan also thinks India’s defeats are not because of excessive experimentation. On the contrary, he feels until India arrives at the right combination they should continue to experiment. Case in point: Imran Khan’s 1992 World Cup winning team was regularly beaten (before that tournament) yet continued to experiment. But then they didn’t have the Indian media and blue billion to contend with.

So, what troubles Team India? According to Imran Khan: The exclusion of India’s biggest match winner, Anil Kumble. (Not the first time, Imran has said this) Likewise for Pakistan the problems were the absence of their premier spinner, Danish Kaneria and fast bowler, Mohammed Sami; instead of whom medium pacers and part-time spinners were bowled. (Again, not the last time Imran will say this). Somewhere in between all that were oft repeated jabs at the establishment and Bob Woolmer.

While these points are debatable, they’re certainly worth a think – as one of the world’s best cricketing minds is partly in-synch with India’s captain and coach, both modern day cricket greats.

For argument’s sake, let’s say, the Indian team stops experimenting - what will happen then? Sehwag and Sachin will continue to open (which they already are after a brief and much berated Sachin-Dravid pairing) - Dravid will bat at his usual one down position (from two down), and Pathan will bat down the order (from a makeshift one downer). The rest of the batting order will stay more or less the same.

Also, let’s consider some other factors: According to King Khan, India had the least experienced opening ball attack in the Champions Trophy. Openers like Chris Gayle, Gilchrist and even Watson have (and will continue to) smash them all over. Even if India luxuriates in playing both Kumble and Harbhajan (our two best bowlers), neither will bowl in the first 10, and rarely in the other two power plays. Either way, it leaves India with 30 overs – where the likes of Gayle and Gilchrist can rip right through. Not to forget, the soon to be released Gibbs and Kemp. Cornered or what?

Dusty, slow, low keeping wickets aside, second-line spinners like Sehwag, Mongia, Yuvraj and Sachin, may not bowl too many overs (specially in South Africa). Which means, no matter what, India’s bowling will have a tough time. That leaves us with the batting, where if nothing else, at least there is experience for what its worth.

For India to succeed through 2006-07, the bowling must be at least earnest and bowl to a basic plan. A bowling coach may not be a bad idea either. In fact, Imran Khan has always emphasized the need for specialist bowling coaches (one each for pace and spin). Pakistan has enrolled Waqar Younis, when will the Indians learn?

Bowling aside, the batting will have to move mountains. Roles will have to change from one game to the other – esp. in the World Cup. So if Dhoni fancies the Sri Lankans and the Pakistanis, he can be unleashed early in the innings at them. Similarly, Pathan as a lefthander may be useful up the order depending on the conditions. Alternatively, if it’s a tricky wicket, Dravid can open the innings.

Unlike the West Indies (in spite of their finals’ folly), New Zealand or South Africa, India cannot pack in batsmen till No.9 or 10 – India will need to play at least four bowlers – of whom only Pathan is more than a slogger. With Pathan’s indifferent bowling form, and the limited resources before the World Cup, experiments may be the only way forward.

Let’s also consider the much-maligned move to keep VVS Laxman out of the ODI side, and instead shower teenagers like Raina with extra chances. And while Laxman has an unrivaled record against Australia, it still may not too late for him. For if Laxman has the hunger and the class, he can still make a comeback after the SA series.

As the World Cup gets closer, and newer players continue to fail, India can still revert to old hands like Laxman, Kaif, Mongia and Ganguly. But what if these old timers had been preferred earlier and failed – surely it would’ve been a lot tougher to try fresh talent 4 months prior to the World Cup. If anything, more experiments with Venugopal Rao, Dinesh Mongia, among others could have been carried out.

Finally, it’s unfortunate that the Indian media and fans cannot appreciate the enormity of Rahul Dravid’s and Greg Chappell’s task.

Maybe everybody needs to listen to the few wise men in cricket. Who knows what gets through to whom? There’s an off chance even our players will listen. Once they take their earphones off.

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