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August 28, 1997


New wine, old bottle....

Prem Panicker

Come Friday August 29, the five-member national selection committee will meet in the Cricket Club of India boardroom, in Bombay, to pick the squad for the Sahara Cup tournament, in Toronto, Canada, involving five one-dayers against Pakistan. Also present will be Indian skipper Sachin Tendulkar and coach Madan Lal, as 'special invitees'.

The same team - barring injuries and other acts of god - will play three ODIs in Pakistan between September 28 and October 3.

So what are the factors the selectors will need to consider, before actually beginning to draw names out of a hat? First, that the side will play eight ODIs between September 13 and October 2. And that in itself dictates the size of the touring party - 16, by any yardstick, being the optimum number, providing sufficient bench strength to cover for injuries and/or lack of form in both the batting and the bowling departments.

Pre-selection analysis will also need to centre around the weather, and consequently, the type of wickets, obtaining in Toronto. Friends of mine in Canada indicate that rain and shine has alternated of late. In fact, when the inaugural edition of the tournament was conducted at the same venue last year, rain was a rather frequent visitant. What this in turn will mean are wickets that are liable to be damp, providing bounce and seam movement and playing on the slower side.

There is one other factor the selectors will - make that should - keep in mind. What the Indian team is headed for is, all said and done, just another ODI tournament, despite the temptation for the media and fans of both participating countries to interpret an Indo-Pak cricketing encounter in battlefield idiom.

Point being, the selectors, while picking the side for this short and strenuous tour, will need to keep in mind that this is early in the season, and the real tests will begin only later, when Sri Lanka tours India for a three Test series, to be followed by the Australian side for a similar series.

With thus much by way of pre-selection thinking, let's get down to actually pulling names out of the hat. And given that it is demonstrably the weakest part of the Indian side, it makes sense to start with the bowling.

Right upfront looms the Javagal Srinath factor. Judging by noices he has been making in the recent past, the Indian quick is raring to get back into the side. And given the total blunting of the Indian seam attack by the Lankan batsmen in the recent past, the temptation could well be to pick him to spearhead the attack once again, on the theory that even a half-fit Srinath is still streets ahead of his peers.

For once, it makes sense to resist temptation. To allow Srinath to pace his return a bit better. As of now, he is bowling in the nets, and will play his first competitive fixture only in the first week of next month. Which means that if he is picked for the side now, he will be testing his shoulder in the heat of competition without the benefit of a proper, careful buildup. The temptation for Srinath will be to stretch himself, to really bowl flat out and prove that the layoff hasn't blunted his pace - and anyone who has had a serious sports injury will tell you that the first weeks of a comeback are when you most run the risk of a relapse.

Keep Srinath out of the fray, let him work back gradually to top pace, and Indian cricket would be better served, in the long run, than if he were to be rushed back into the squad now. And BCCI secretary J Y Lele, in his latest public statement, has indicated that this is pretty much what the selectors' thinking on the matter is - in any event, he has said that he is yet to receive a fitness certificate from the Indian quick and therefore, he will not be considered.

So are we back to Venkatesh Prasad and Abey Kuruvilla? Again, to my mind, the answer is no. Prasad, in the last two ODIs in Sri Lanka, has been showing distinct signs of going the Srinath way - in fact, in the last ODI against Lanka, he was noticeably wincing with shoulder pain during his first spell and, in fact, did not complete his quota. Again, he took to lobbing the ball back underarm from the outfield - remember Srinath in South Africa - to take the load off his bowling/throwing arm. Symptoms, all, that suggest that the overworked quick bowler badly needs a rest - and the time to give him that rest would be now, rather than run the risk of his shoulder totally packing it in by the time India readies for the Tests to come. A fully fit Prasad later in the year is liable to yield more dividends than a half-fit Prasad in Toronto, which sums up the case for resting him.

Kuruvilla did well in the final ODI of the Lankan tour, but his overall poor form, allied with distinct signs that he too is feeling the strain of overwork. A fit and raring to go Kuruvilla gives India a third-seamer option later in the year when the Lankans, followed by the Aussies, get here for the Tests - a half fit, tired, mentally drained Kuruvilla is no use to anybody in Toronto (except possibly to the Pakistan batsmen). Which is why, to my mind, it would make sense to rest him as well - again keeping in mind that the upcoming series has to be weighed in context of the extended season that lies ahead.

So my pick for the opening slots in the bowling department would be Dodda Ganesh and Debashish Mohanty. Both are young and hungry. Both are appreciably quicker than either Prasad or Kuruvilla. Both have the knack of running the ball off the seam - while Ganesh's stock ball is the one darting back in at the right-hander, Mohanty has natural movement in the other direction. And both - which to my mind is a huge plus - are fully fit.

Once you have the two pacemen lined up, you figure out the rest of the attack. One thing you factor in upfront - you have, in Robin Singh, Saurav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja, four players who, between them, are capable of bowling at the least 20 overs that are reasonably restrictive, especially when they are used in short spells. And this is something you factor in when you pick the rest of the bowlers.

Which in turn brings up the question of Anil Kumble. Again, harsh though it sounds, it is increasingly inescapable that the leg spinner needs a break, badly. For one thing, he too shares the overwork syndrome affecting Prasad. For another, when you talk of him these days, it has become irrelevant to talk of his strike rate - it would perhaps be more pertinent to talk of the rate at which he is being struck.

I do not think that Kumble has any problem that a break, to rest both mind and body, and some quality time in the nets under the expert attention of people like Prasanna, Chandra and Bishen Bedi, cannot cure. And if he is given that opportunity now, he would be much more value to the side later this season, than if he were taken to Toronto and mauled, yet again, this time by Pakistan's spin-happy batsmen.

So who do we take? To my mind, the ideal quartet - and I would like to see four spinners going on the tour, even if there is no way you can play all of them in each game - would be Nilesh Kulkarni, Noel David, Rajesh Chauhan and Venkatapathy Raju.

Two off spinners, two left-arm spinners. Giving me the option of using one of each type, or even three to a game if the wicket, as it will towards the end of the tournament, begin to play slower and lower and ever more spin friendly. One thing all four bowlers have in common are that they are aggressive bowlers who take wickets - and if you look at the recent ODIs in Lanka, you realise that the only time they were contained to a decent total (and 264, by Sri Lankan standards these days, is very decent) was when they were bowled out. Noel David, besides, is a good plus-20 as soon as he steps onto the field, by virtue of his fielding alone - and that in itself merits the cost of his flight ticket to Canada.

So out of 16 players, you have six bowlers - two pace, four spin. Besides Robin Singh, the utility man. And three other players, as named, who could - and should - be used in pretty much every game.

Now to look at the batting - and the first step, to my mind, would be to look at the key number 7 position. For some time now, the Indian tail has contributed zero. Zilch.

Fair enough - if the bowlers do their job with the ball, then I for one have no quarrels with expecting the batsmen to do the other half of the job. But a wicket-keeper at number seven (or six, if for a particular game the game plan dictates five bowlers being used) who can get a quick 20, 30 runs is a must. And Mongia, in recent outings, has not only looked incapable of doing the job, but has added to the problem by displaying a strange reluctance to take singles or respond to his partner's call.

I am not much of an advocate for picking and dropping players after every failure - but I do believe that at some stage, we need to get the thinking cap on firmly about this one. Mongia, as anyone who has watched an innings of his at international level will tell you, is the kind of player who rarely if ever gets runs in front of the wicket on the off or even on sides. His most productive stroke - only consistently productive stroke - is the one he plays off the hips towards backward square. And how long does it take for the skipper of the bowling side to plug one gap, and for bowlers to change their line?

So maybe the Australian thinking is the one to go with here - pick a team for the ODIs, and one for the Tests, with the unstated premise being that not all players of the first have to be in contention for the second, and vice versa. Mongia is easily our best keeper, and in the Test version of the game, can afford to take the time he needs to get a few useful runs in the lower middle order. So a good bet, then, would be to pick Saba Karim for the one dayers - with the proviso that he is told, right at the outset, that he has the job for keeps, that he has no reason to feel pressurised, and that in return, the team expects him to get runs at a good clip lower down the order and, equally importantly, to place a premium on his wicket and not throw it away with the kind of silly cricket he has been prone to of late.

That, then, is the lower order done - one keeper, six bowlers. And nine batsmen left to pick. Of whom, as mentioned earlier, Robin Singh and Ajay Jadeja fill the all-rounder slot - and here, I would, I think, insist that Jadeja pull his weight with the ball as well as bat. The team needs each member to contribute the maximum that is in him - not for one player to actually stop doing something that he used to earlier.

That leaves us with seven pure batting slots to fill - and to my mind, Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly fit the openers slots without any need for thought or debate. And that in turn means, for me, that Navjot Sidhu has to be left out of the touring party - and will come back into contention for the Tests later in the year. Simply because it is silly to take a man like Sidhu along and not play him, equally silly to shove him into the middle order given that he is not the greatest runner between wickets we have, and in the middle order we badly need players who can work the ball around and keep the singles coming.

Five batsmen, then, for the middle order - and Azharuddin is, on form, an automatic choice. So, too, is Rahul Dravid, though his role will need some discussion - more so with Robin Singh clicking in the number three role. So before going further, let's club those two things and take a quick look at the situation with the number three slot.

Robin did enough in the last leg of the Lankan tour to make a strong claim for that position. And it could work out very well, provided the Indian captain and coach gave him a talking to about the unwisdom of attempting, especially early in his innings, to glide deliveries outside off down to third man - a batting technique calculated to have the coronary units of local hospitals working overtime. When he plays his normal game - which is very straight bat, down the line stuff punctuated by the power-packed pull when a bowler drops it short - he looks good, and has the added advantage of being a very quick mover between wickets.

But if Robin is slotted in at number three, then what of Dravid? He is classy, yes. But classical batsmanship of his type is also the easiest to contain, as Ranatunga showed so very effectively in course of the recent ODI series. And a number four batsman who is not going along at a strike rate of above 75, 80 per cent will put too much pressure on the later batsmen.

For now, I think what I would do is use Dravid as the floater. If two early wickets fall, I would have him come in at four, and steady things. If the openers and Robin play their part, I would push Azhar in at number four and if Azhar, too, gets going, then Jadeja ahead of Dravid.

Unfair to a batsman of Dravid's class? Not really - he is a team man, one of the few in the side, and would perhaps be the first to agree that the team's interests come first. Besides, this could also be the spur he needs to work on his limited-overs batsmanship - as a similar exercise of yo-yoing him up and down the order prompted him to tighten his game and make the number three Test slot his own.

If Azhar and Dravid are two of the five, then it is time V V S Laxman came back in as the third batsman. He is a classy, solid player for the middle order, and will be one of the reserves - a very handy one, too, because he can even open if needed. And besides, he is a competent enough bowler to get through four, five overs at a fairly economical rate, which gives the captain an added option.

For the number four batting slot, I would pick Vinod Kambli. True, he looks a shade overweight - but he did take the field twice during the India-Sri Lanka ODIs as substitute fielder, and nothing about the way he moved over the outfield suggested that the extra tonnage was slowing him down. And he is one of those handy types in the middle order who can play either through the line, or across it, as need dictates - and he does pack a lot of power in his shots, which is pretty useful given the smaller boundaries at the Toronto ground.

Having got this far, I am tempted to do a rethink of my original intention. We now have a batting lineup that reads Tendulkar, Ganguly, Robin, Azhar, Jadeja, Dravid (with the last named going up the order in the case of a sudden collapse at the top) followed by Karim. We also have Kambli and Laxman on standby, in case of injuries or sudden loss of form.

So do we really need a third spare wheel in the batting slot? If yes, then I would be tempted to take along the Bombay teenager, Wasim Jaffer. He is a very stylish player, very much at home against pace, and good between wickets besides being a more than decent outfielder. Given that he is in all probability the boy who will provide the long term answer to India's opening problem, my temptation would be to take him along, get him used to the feel of being part of the big time, and in the event that either side wraps up the series before the fifth game is played, blood him in the inconsequential match (or, alternately, play him in the very first outing, when there are four more games to go to repair any damage). Because if he can get a bat in a non-pressure situation and click, that frees Sachin Tendulkar to drop down the order and control the weakest part of the Indian batting - which is the way we play our middle overs.

And if we decide that we don't reallly need three reserve batsmen, then I would pick Rajinder Singh of Punjab as third pace bowler. He is genuinely fast and nippy - easily India's fastest after Srinath at his best. He does tend to spray them around a bit - but hey, anyone remember a certain Dennis Lillee when he started out? Come to think of it, 'erratic' was Mohanty's problem, too - but look how quick he learnt to get his line right.

Having Singh along provides cover for either Mohanty or Dodda Ganesh in case of loss of form or the odd hamstring pull, and to my mind, rounds off the side.

One question remains - that of vice captain. The temptation again would be to name Dravid - but given that he must about now be feeling the pressure of his lagging strike rate, I wouldn't burden him with the additional responsibility just yet, preferring to go, for now, with Ajay Jadeja as deputy. For one thing, Jadeja has a good head on his shoulders. For another, he is assured of his place in the side. And thirdly, it is obviously not a very long term appointment - which means that Kumble gets the signal that he has a chance of making it back, and Dravid too does not get the feeling that he has missed the bus.

So that then is the team I would pick: Batsmen: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Azharuddin, VVS Laxman and Vinod Kambli; All rounders: Ajay Jadeja, Robin Singh; Wicket keeper: Syed Saba Karim; Bowlers: Debashish Mohanty, Dodda Ganesh, Venkatapathy Raju, Noel David, Nilesh Kulkarni, Rajesh Chauhan. And the 16th member to be picked between Wasim Jaffer and Rajinder Singh, with perhaps the edge going to the latter as he will be the reserve pace bowler, while Jaffer is more a choice with an eye for the future.

And now to see what the selectors do....

Tailpiece: Friday the 29th, the selectors will be meeting around 1300 IST at the CCI, Mumbai. The team is expected to be announced around 1700 IST. And the minute the list is received, we will be putting it up... and seguing into a live chat, with Harsha Bhogle, about the pros and cons of the side as selected. Watch for the link, on the main home page and also the chat home page. See you there.

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