February 15, 2007

World Cup Blues.

Pathan’s Puzzle. Spinner’s dilemma.

If it was the Indian XV versus that of another team’s, chances are, our bench strength won’t take us far. Luckily, it’s not fifteen players that decide a game’s outcome. It’s eleven. And for India to harbour any real ambitions in the World Cup they will have to be even more ruthless choosing the final eleven then they have been with this squad of fifteen.

At present, to figure out the final eleven isn’t that easy. Our fast bowlers aren’t even Jonty Rhodes wannabes when it comes to dexterity leave alone match fitness. Ironic, since it was an injury that prematurely cut short Rhodes last World Cup. And talking about World Cup surprises, wasn’t it Dravid who vindicated himself as wicket keeper against all odds? But without digressing any further, and sticking with the quicks and their fitness, looks like India will play two, if not three quicks in most games. That there are five fast bowling options (Munaf Patel, Agarkar, Zaheer, Sreesanth and Pathan) India may have to rest at least two. Or is that so? Can India luxuriate in playing Pathan, first as a batsman (in a floating position), and then as the 5th/6th bowling option? Will Chappell’s much rued experiments finally come to fruition?

There’s no hiding the fact that Pathan was supposed to be India’s Joker (a much maligned Siddhuism for a multi-faceted cricketer) - who would fit into every conceivable scheme. So, even if Pathan doesn’t bowl more than 4-5 overs, as an aggressive Left Handed Batsman (LHB) at least he can add another dimension to a side that’s heavily packed with Right Handed Batsmen (RHB). Without Yuvraj and Ganguly in the South Africa one-day series, India’s RHBs were sitting ducks for Pollock, Ntini and even the mercurial Nel. If that didn’t teach us anything, what will? And when Pathan did bat in the first-class games, he was the by far the best Indian bat on display. That when rookies like Morkel were knocking the stuffing out of the gods.

But how do you fit Pathan in as a lower-middle-order batsman, and the 5th/6th change bowler? This implies, in addition to Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Yuvraj, (the four untouchables) and one wicketkeeper, India can play either Robin Uthappa or Virender Sehwag.

Either this, or 1) Do not play a specialist spinner and have Sachin, Sehwag, Yuvraj chip in with Pathan for twenty overs. This might be dicey, but in a sense it replicates the West Indies and Pakistani models for the World Cup wherein the team packs in at least 8 batsmen /all-rounders, and only three specialist bowlers. In these teams, there’s no specialist spinner, and the likes of Gayle, Samuels (for West Indies); and Afridi, Malik, Hafeez (for Pak) fill in the 5th and 6th bowlers’ spot. Apart from England (Monty Panesar), New Zealand (Daniel Vettori) and at times Australia (Brad Hogg), teams are now reluctant to play specialist spinners in one-day games. Why does Pakistan’s leading leg-spinner not play ODIs anymore? Did one-day-cricket compel Saqlain Mustaq to bowl faster and forget his craft? Will Harbhajan be the doosra Saqlain? Is one-day cricket just not meant to be for specialist spinners?

Back to the Pathan puzzle - 2) Play only two specialist fast quicks plus Pathan and one specialist spinner. This could be even dicier, as not even Pathan knows his present bowling form.

3) Wait for players to breakdown and fail fitness tests – going by the Rajkot game, and the team’s fragile fitness, this could be a distinct possibility.

Then again, India could (that nasty word again) experiment – adopt a ruthless horses-for- courses approach. Against Asian teams that are not spin-shy, go with the extra fast bowler. And if India makes it to the Super 8s against non-Asian teams, go in with the extra specialist spinner. Who knows what might happen? And if India does indeed play Australia again, at any stage, they must not make the same mistake as four years back. And that was to attack Australia with pace. That too, half cooked medium fare. Who knows, the once acclaimed spin-twins might have one last trick in the bag. For, if India is going anywhere in this World Cup it will be thanks to spin. Whose fingers will tweak India’s fortunes is anybody’s guess.

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