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November 27, 1998


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Harsha Bhogle

Six months before a major event may be too far away to be able to pick a winner, but it is perhaps the best time to check the state of preparedness that various teams find themselves in. While it may not count too much for what happens on the big day, it gives everyone a very good idea of the commitment that these teams have towards winning the World Cup and the degree of planning that is going into it.

I believe vital clues can be acquired by seeing the kind of selection options that teams have allowed themselves. It is crucial, especially at this stage, that a team's performance should not look vastly different even if specific individuals are, for a variety of reasons, made unavailable. And therefore, a team should, ideally, have no players that are indispensable. That stage should have been reached by now and in the next five months, each country should really be working towards arriving at a final list of fourteen players.

In most people's opinion, South Africa and Australia are early favourites and an analysis of the factors I have just stated tells you why this is so. South Africa went to Dhaka without four outstanding players and won quite easily. Now, if you look at the eleven players, or indeed the fourteen, that won them the Wills International Cup, and took as many as six or seven out, you would realise that the difference in overall quality is only marginal. Obviously, South Africa would love to have Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener in their attack but it won't be the end of their campaign if these three are not around. Apart from Hansie Cronje, more as captain than as player, and to a lesser extent Jonty Rhodes, they could leave out anybody.

Similarly, Australia went to Pakistan and won without Shane Warne and without a notable contribution from their best batsman, Mark Waugh. They could afford to leave out Greg Blewett, Stuart Law, Michael Slater and Ian Healy, and were without Tom Moody, which really means they have more than twenty players from whom any set of fourteen would produce a team of fairly similar quality. Only Glenn McGrath is truly indispensable and because there isn't another strong candidate for the captaincy around, you would have to add Steve Waugh to that list.

A look at the other challengers though throws up a very different picture. Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and, to some extent, the West Indies have players of wonderful skills -- but these are people whose absence would leave a gaping hole in the line-up. These are also teams that have chosen to have virtually the same set of players everytime and, as a result, the marginal players have never really been under pressure to do too much more than retain their place.

Imagine a West Indies line-up without Brian Lara, Carl Hooper and Curtly Ambrose (Ali Bacher couldn't, so he even paid for their hotel bill in London!) or a Pakistan team without Saeed Anwar, Inzamamul Huq and Wasim Akram. Or for that matter, Sri Lanka without their batting stars. There don't seem to be any replacements around for them and the respective teams, in fact, look quite unrecognisable without them.

As defending champions, Sri Lanka are perhaps the most vulnerable. In terms of skills, they have always been a bit skewed for batting is by a long margin, their stronger arm. With Sanath Jayasiriya and Aravinda da Silva in wonderful form, and Arjuna Ranatunga holding the lower half together, they looked a fabulous side. They still are, but only when these three men score runs, for they do not have the bowling to defend a small score. When they fail, they cannot produce the runs that the bowlers need.

In order to justify, and indeed to nurture, the huge outpouring of pride that accompanied the World Cup victory, Sri Lanka had to play their best team everytime. This meant that virtually no other batsman got an opportunity and really between two World Cups, Marvan Atapattu for Asanka Gususinha is their only change. It is now too late to groom replacements, and the only one they have tried, Mahela Jayawardene, hasn't come good in one-day cricket. As a result, Sri Lanka now have to hope that their top three do not, for any reason, miss the World Cup. You don't produce cricketers of that ability overnight but as a captain, you would always like to have someone on the bench who is at least eighty percent as good. Sri Lanka do not have replacements for these three, and for Muralitharan, who are even fifty per cent as good.

Without quite relying on the batsmen to the same extent as the Lankans, India are also a batting-driven side and in spite of having played 40 internationals in 1998, they are no closer to having sturdy replacements ready. Sachin Tendulkar would be indispensable to any World Cup side but there is no opening partner for him other than Sourav Ganguly in sight, because we have tried neither Rahul Dravid nor VVS Laxman in that role. We simply must have Mohammad Azharuddin in the middle-order and without either, or indeed both, Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh, we never seem to get the finishing kick. Again, like with the Sri Lankans, it is good to have a settled look to the side but you have to have options ready and India do not have any.

Ditto with Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble, who are absolutely wonderful bowlers but both are too far better than anyone else for us to feel safe enough. A team will need three regular seamers in the playing eleven in England, and while Ajit Agarkar is coming along pretty well, it is important that he be the supporting new ball bowler for some more time. Hopefully Venkatesh Prasad will be the ideal third seamer but cast your net around the country in search of two more names and the chances are it will come up empty.

As a side full of players who simply have to play, we are in an extremely vulnerable situation. Unlike South Africa and Australia, we really do not have more than twelve players and, on current form, it seems that any list of fourteen will have at least two players that you hope will not have to play. That is a horror story and we have only five matches in New Zealand left to come up with alternatives.

The thing about alternatives is that you may not need them, but you must always have them. Just as you don't plan for a disaster, but have to be ready for one.

Ideally by now, India should have identified players to perform three crucial jobs. First, a batsman who can bat anywhere in the order and has the skill to modify his game accordingly. Our batting order is too rigid just now, with only Nayan Mongia as the reluctant floater. Someone like Amay Khurasia, who happily opens the batting or can bat in the middle, might be a solution. But he needs to be tried ahead of the time, to ensure that his great promise at domestic level can be duplicated in international cricket. It might already be too late for that now.

We need a top seam bowler who can either bat up the order or, in an emergency, bat like a top-order man. In similar roles, Jacques Kallis and Neil Johnson have made a huge difference to their sides. Australia have tried, admittedly with limited success, with Tom Moody and Damien Martyn though both are basically batsmen who can bowl. I thought it might have been a good idea to bat Ajit Agarkar at number four or five in one of the games in Sharjah, but now that that tournament is over, maybe we need to do that in New Zealand.

And we need a top order batsman, or a combination of batsmen, to bowl ten overs consistently. We could play five full bowlers in Sharjah but we cannot do that in England, where you have to play three seamers and a spinner and need a couple of options with back-up seamers, and one back-up spinner, from among the batsmen. India are hoping to do that with Robin Singh, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar but for that to happen, these people must bowl regularly. We cannot, for example, arrive in England and hope to convert Ganguly to a ten-over, or even a six-over, bowler. He needs to have bowled consistently before and ideally, should have had a couple of bad spells to find out what might go wrong.

But there isn't much one-day cricket left before the World Cup. Five matches in New Zealand and five against Pakistan (if the series does take place). There is no time now for replacements and very little room for experimentation and India must hope, like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, that the best team is available for selection.

Harsha Bhogle

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