|December 31, 1997||
A Time to Experiment
Why is the Indian team so afraid of experimenting?
Given the string of defeats in ODIs, one would have expected lots of well thought out experiments.
True, there are a number of proponents of the stability theory, but if the team isn't winning consistently and there are players who are not performing, then the team needs to try out new players and new combinations. Edward de Bono had a point when he said that digging deeper isn't going to help if you're digging in the wrong place.
What is even more surprising is the fact that with the success of the few gambles that have been taken -- for example, Mohanty -- one would have expected a boldness of spirit as far as further experiments are concerned.
Consider the line-up as it stands today. Only the following players are automatic selections -- Ganguly, Tendulkar, Jadeja, Srinath, Chauhan and Mohanty. Theoretically, there are five slots in the playing XI and three in the reserves up for grabs. The picture becomes clearer if we look at the team requirements and the missing elements:
The ideal team would have five specialist batsmen (Ganguly, Tendulkar, Jadeja and two others), two all-rounders (one a batsman who can bowl a few overs, the other a bowler who can bat a bit), a batting wicket-keeper and the three specialist bowlers (Srinath, Mohanty and Chauhan).
This gives the team a possible batting lineup which goes on till number eight, while the bowling is reasonably strong with four front-line bowlers and two support bowlers. In the reserves, we need a back-up pace bowler (Venkatesh Prasad should be an undisputed choice) who comes in either if Mohanty is out of touch or if conditions require a third pace bowler. A reserve batsman and a reserve spinner/allrounder should complete the team of fourteen.
Approached in this fashion, there are a number of possible combinations that can be experimented with.
The first option is the classical ODI line-up: There are two possible variations as shown below:
Keeping true to the original intent of experimenting, and with the performance of the current players in mind, I have not considered Sidhu and Jadeja for the opener's position. While Jaffer and Khoda spring to mind as possible contenders, I must admit that neither inspires much confidence, and one can understand selectorial predicament in this case.
Tendulkar at No.3 is ideal for the position. In an ODI, it is the position which calls for the highest caliber batsman -- one who can guide the innings, accelerate the run-rate or drop anchor as the situation demands. Tendulkar remains technically the team's most skillful one-day batsman and should be coming in at the one-drop position. No.4 is a position which Azharuddin in full flow is ideal for -- it demands a player of practically the same skills as the No.3 position, but with the added responsibility of preventing batting collapses which have become a feature of the Indian batting these days.
I am not sure whether it is time yet to drop Azharuddin from the playing XI, but I would like to try either Dravid or Kambli for this position. While neither of them is a new player, a new position and a new role in the line-up justifies a recall. It must also be remembered that in case the team loses its third wicket towards the end of the innings, say anywhere from the 35th over onwards, Jadeja should be the batsman promoted to the No.4 position. The position of a batting allrounder is currently occupied by Robin Singh, and he has been adequate in this position. However, for two main reasons I seek a replacement for him. The No. 6 batsman should be in a position to lead the tailenders if the middle order collapses, and mount a final slog overs assault in case of a good start. Singh has been only moderately successful in doing the former. His failure as a bowler in consistently being able to bowl 5-10 overs at an economic rate is the second reason.
We face some problems in identifying a possible replacement -- I have put two possible names, Kanitkar and Rohan Gavaskar. Kanitkar would be definitely my first experiment -- after all, the guy has been in the reserves long enough and we will never know how good he is unless he is tried. Gavaskar is also a possibility. I am sure Indian cricket fans will be able to name a couple of others.
I believe that this slot, along with that of a bowling allrounder, is the crucial weakness of the current Indian team. The slot of the bowling allrounder is, in fact, so wide open that I cannot even think of possible contenders. Bahutule has been brought into the team as an allrounder, but he is really just a bowler who is not a novice with the bat. He is as much of an allrounder as Srinath is, but the slot actually calls for an allrounder of Kapil Dev's skills, and given that this could be impossible, we need at least someone in the Manoj Prabhakar mould.
Ajit Agarkar's name has been mentioned in this connection, and there seems to be some promise in the new Orissa allrounder Robin Morris. The finding of a player for this slot would be as crucial as that of the batting allrounder. Bold gambles for these slots are perfectly acceptable, if the future of the team is to be secured. The wicket-keeper experiment is really to find if there is a better option to Mongia / Karim, but it is not the most important experiment in this line-up. The three specialist bowlers pretty much select themselves on current performance.
Variation 2 reverts to practically the batting order that the team played with for the most part of the year. The middle-order, in this case, looks distinctly shaky. There is also the psychological factor of losing Tendulkar's wicket early. Not really a combination that one would recommend.
The second option also has two variations as shown below:
Essentially, both line-ups seek to experiment with the openers slot. This is the 'Shahid Afridi' school of thought -- i.e. an opening batsman who is expected to last for not more than first 10-15 overs, score 30-40 at an explosive pace and then leave the rest of the task to the specialist batsmen in the line-up. In such a case, the batting line-up necessarily runs to No. 6, recognizing that the opening batsman is doing at the top of the order what he would have done in the slog overs in the classical ODI line-up. Since this means an additional batsman, this opening batsman has to perform a dual function -- that of the fifth bowler in variation 1 and that of the wicket keeper in variation 2. Both are experiments well worth conducting.
I would, as I indicated already, use the next 5-6 ODIs to experiment. Variation 1 of the second option should be tried first, followed by the second variation. The classical ODI should be experimented with only as the last resort as it, on paper, looks the least promising of the options.
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