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February 25, 1998


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Surprise, surprise, no surprise!

send this story to a friend Prem Panicker

The day the national selectors pick a team without any surprises is the day I'll -- never mind, that day will never come, I guess.

The latest exercise, thus, has its due share of eyebrow-raisers. And the omission of Venkatesh Prasad is the most startling among them.

That Prasad is being axed for reasons other than cricket is obvious. Ramakant Desai, who badly needs a new scriptwriter says that the Karnataka medium pacer is not fully fit. Begs the question somewhat -- why, then, did these same selectors pick Prasad for the Board President's XI which will play the touring Aussies from Monday?

This, in fact, epitomises all that is rotten about the selection committee -- for, increasingly, that body does not appear to care for public opinion. It does its thing, it assigns whatever reasons its chairman hits upon at the spur of the moment and, in its collective arrogance, not only does it not bother to give the real reason, it apparently can't even be bothered to think up good, believable excuse.

On the plus side, the selectors have finally brought back the guy I rate as the best spinner in the country today. Raju has all its wiles, he is -- and this is especially important when playing a team like the Aussies -- an aggressive, wicket-taking bowler. And most importantly, he enjoys the confidence of his captain. In fact, Azharuddin's hand is very obvious in his selection.

Kumble's comeback was perhaps inevitable. Not that he has been in outstanding form in the domestic circuit, but because the selectors would typically bank on reputation, as opposed to recent results.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the exercise is the composition of the playing eleven.

Let us take the given, first: Sidhu will open. Azhar will probably come in at number three, since he has expressed publicly a preference for that slot. That leaves Dravid at four, Sachin at five, Ganguly at six. If you pencil in Mongia at seven, what you have is an overlong batting line up and only four slots for bowlers.

And that would be dangerous. Srinath cannot -- rather, should not -- be used a work horse. Kumble's current form is uncertain.

Both Mohanty and Harvinder are too raw to take on the Aussies batting line-up. Chauhan is still reeling under the recent chucking controversy, and it remains to be seen what the effect of his new bowling action will be on his effectiveness. And if Raju is picked ahead of the offie, not only will the side have two bowlers -- the other being Kumble -- turning the ball the same way, but, further, Raju will not get the time he needs to settle back into the big-time groove.

The solution I suspect Azhar will opt for is to play Mongia at number two, thus freeing up a slot for a fifth bowler., And given that the M A Chidambaram Stadium wicket is a turner, it means the side could go in with three spinners, plus two quicks, plus Ganguly with his gentle outswing.

Fair enough. But the defect there lies in the fact that Ganguly, at number six, will find himself batting in the company of the tail. The idea of a keeper at seven is to provide a buffer between the last recognised batsman and the tail -- and pushing Mongia up deprives Ganguly, easily India's most consistent batsman, of that comfort zone.

The solution? Push either Dravid or Ganguly into the opening slot. Both are good players of pace both are run-hungry -- no problems there. And of the two, I would prefer Dravid at number two. The reason being that he is a misfit at four. Dravid is the ideal number three -- the kind who, at the fall of the first wicket, can come in and anchor one end, allowing his free-stroking colleagues to bat around him at the other end.

But if Azhar wants the number three slot, then Dravid at four could check the momentum of the innings. Ideally, your numbers four and five, maybe even six, are batsmen who should be able to up the tempo, put the boot into bowlers who have expended their initial energy. And in doing so, they make sure that the side gets runs at a rapid enough pace to give time for its bowlers to work on the opposition.

So Dravid at four seems a no-no. And much as the mind militates against tinkering around with the position of a player as good as the Karnataka right hander, the larger interest appears to dictate that he go up the order.

All of which is hard lines on Messrs Laxman and Kanitkar -- but hey, only 11 can play, right?

Of the other omissions, Jadeja was obvious -- and not because of his trick knee either. The man does not merit a Test place - it is that simple. Kulkarni could count himself ill-used -- but then, you really don't see him making much headway against batsman like Blewett, Pointng and the Waughs, all of whom use their feet exceptionally well.

And Kuruvilla? This might seem harsh, considering how manfully he shouldered the burden in the absence of first Srinath, then Prasad -- but the fact is that length and line, the Bombay bowler's sole USP, are not much use against a team like the Aussies.

It's like an erstwhile Indian cricketing great, and a former captain of both Bombay and India, said a while ago: "Kuruvilla is a wonderful bowler -- for rival batsman to play themselves in against!"

Prem Panicker

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