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October 6, 1999


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Of heatbreak and joy

Harsha Bhogle

Forget normal days, this one is about heartbreak and joy, and the announcement of the Indian team has both in equal measure.

It is a huge day for Vijay Bharadwaj, and who is to deny that he has earned it. Four years ago, I saw him bat in a highlights programme and I thought he played spinners better than most young men I had seen. Then I saw him get a hundred in the Ranji Trophy final of 1996 and I thought his footwork was extremely impressive and his cover-driving worth going miles to see. Then he disappeared, occasionally showing flashes of brilliance, and when he surfaced, he seemed to show nerves. He let a couple of opportunities go by as well and on a good track at the Brabourne Stadium, he didn't seem to like the bouncing ball. There was a temptation to regard him as another "soft" player but he clothed his disappointment well, went back to Karnataka and scored lots of runs.

He was helped greatly by the absence of Rahul Dravid because it allowed him to shoulder responsibility in a team that seems to produce more bowlers than batsmen. In fact Bharadwaj did in 1998-99 exactly what Rahul Dravid did in 1995-96 for Karnataka. If anything, he went one step further, by working on his strictly part-time off-breaks and developing them well enough to pick up six in an innings twice in the season; once most notably in the final of the Ranji Trophy when Karnataka came back to win.

Along the line he picked up some attributes that are invaluable in the modern game but which, like innocence, are quickly put aside. That was evident at Nairobi, where he seemed quite happy to adapt to the needs of his team, even if it meant hitting the first ball through the line. It requires a big heart to do that and in this respect, he showed himself equal to the man he replaced, Vinod Kambli, who might be short of runs but is never short on spirit.

There is little doubt that Bharadwaj will play the first Test, batting, maybe, at number six or seven (in which case there might be another, purely statistical, parallel with Dravid!) and functioning as the third spinner. He needs to be just a bit careful of that though because he runs the risk of being labelled as an off-spinner-batsman and his bowling isn't ready for that tag yet.

But at number six, he is a very good player to have in your side and the fact that he hits the deck would make him a good bowler on a turner. It will allow India to play the wicketkeeper and six batsmen, a luxury they haven't enjoyed at home for a while.

In a career that is three matches old though, he has already shaken a few of the established players. Clearly he has taken Azharuddin's place in this team and in doing so, he has also probably taken Harbhajan Singh's! And in the one-day game, he already looks like a challenger for Robin Singh's slot as well!

If Bharadwaj fought his way in, M. S. K. Prasad probably owes it a little more to luck; or to the preferences of specific individuals. Playing as he does for Andhra, he wasn't quite in the public eye in the manner that Bharadwaj was and so when he was picked to play for India 'A', he caused a few eyebrows to be raised. Those went down pretty quickly because for the trained eye. It is clear that he has a natural flair for the game. He tends to go for the theatrical sometimes and it has come in the way of his performance a couple of times, but with experience that should go and he should settle down to be a safe keeper.

It was his batting that caught the eye though when I first saw him. I actually mistook him for V V S Laxman, such was the flair with which he was hitting through the on-side. But unlike Mongia, who is far more solid and better groomed as a batsman, Prasad is a shot maker and in the years to come he will delight but he might cause despair as well.

I would still think of him as a very good challenger rather than as a replacement for Mongia, who has been genuinely outstanding behind the stumps (but that is the topic of an accompanying piece anyway!).

Probably the luckiest of the newcomers is Debang Gandhi, a slightly loose strokeplayer from Bengal. He had a couple of good innings against West Indies 'A' last year but when he played in the one-dayers, you wondered if you wanted someone as loose opening the batting for you in international cricket. But with Laxman being left out for the Asian Test Championship, Gandhi got picked in a team that should never have been picked in the first place because India had no guarantee of reaching the final! He has hardly played any cricket since then (don't take the scores from that tournament in Los Angeles too seriously because with an 8 am start, the batsmen never had a chance!) and probably makes the squad on the basis of continuity (though on that count, Azharuddin should have made it as well, but then that again is the subject of another piece!)

If India do open the batting with him, as is being said at this moment, then I am afraid that leaves no room for Jadeja, which is why, for all the public pronouncements, I have a weird feeling that we will see Prasad opening at Mohali. It is a nightmarish thought, but one we have to be ready for.

Harsha Bhogle

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