November 12, 1997
Return of the prodigals
There are two ways of naming a cricket team in a column. Either you put in what you would like to see, which has very little meaning because the selectors don't really bother about what other people think, even if they are extremely eminent people. The other is to try and infer what the selectors are going to do. And that is a very dirty business because if you get it right, it means you probably knew things that you were not supposed to know.
Let's go with option one, and pretend it is one of those high school debates!
The only assumption that I have made is that the pitch at Mohali will be fast and bouncy. I have based my assumption on the fact that it is traditionally that way, and that late last month, Punjab played Himachal Pradesh and, in spite of possessing a very decent batting line-up (Sidhu, Rathore, Dinesh Mongia, Reetinder Sodhi, Dharmani, Kapoor....) were bowled out for a little over 200 by the quicks. In return, Harvinder Singh got 7 for 58 and they finished off the match.
So this is the side I would pick, to play the upcoming Test series against Sri Lanka, in batting order: Sidhu, Jadeja, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Azharuddin, Mongia, Kumble, Srinath, Prasad, Kuruvilla. Reserves: VVS Laxman, Nilesh Kulkarni, Debashish Mohanty.
The openers and the reserves are probably the only ones that would spark off major debates. Or so I hope!
Sidhu got runs in Sri Lanka, and though he might be a bit rusty, he has all the qualities of a Test match opener that Tendulkar would be looking for. It could be argued that Wasim Jaffer or Gagan Khoda represent investments for the future, and that a home series against a relatively docile new ball attack would be the perfect time to induct either of them into the side. But I believe Sidhu still commands value, and knows more about the track at Mohali than anyone else. He is a brave batsman, and I think very well equipped to play at Mohali against Vaas and Pushpakumara.
Jadeja is the tricky one, and the main reason he is in is that he is high on confidence. He has played some wonderful innings in one-day cricket recently, is looking in very good nick, and has a 90 and a 70 in his last three or four Test innings. As opener. Besides, he is a very good team-man, a good ideas man and you need people like him on the field. It will be a crucial match for him because there are replacements around in case he flubs it, though I believe he has done enough to be guaranteed one series to prove himself.
The next four pick themselves, and there can only be debate about who bats where. Dravid gets number three by right after his batting in the West Indies, and it is a wonderful sign for the captain that should there be a problem he has a proven replacement in Ganguly. Tendulkar has never really failed in a Test match, his last two matches against the Sri Lankans produced two centuries and after hitting 177 against Gujarat, his confidence should be back.
Numbers five and six should really depend on how Tendulkar feels. Azharuddin has got runs at number five and Ganguly has got runs everywhere. So it really boils down to determining which player is happier, or less reluctant, to bat with the lower half. I have slotted Azhar there because he scores runs quicker than Ganguly and because a left hander in between would be a better idea.
With Mongia returning down the order, it gives number six a little more confidence, and I think the captain should demand more runs from his wicketkeeper; as much for the team's needs as for Mongia's confidence. And Mongia has a fair bit of batting support coming below him. Anil Kumble has got a lot of runs in domestic cricket this season, including a century against a decent Hyderabad attack last week. And Srinath can bat.
If Srinath is fit and bowling fast -- and reports and eye-witnesses say yes to both -- he walks in though he would want to bowl shorter spells. That paves the way for Kuruvilla, who on seaming tracks can be very good and who will play the role of the stock bowler in this side. He has rested, has utilised the time well to take his mind off the game by getting married, and returned to bowl a fiery spell for Bombay against Gujarat (where incidentally, Paras Mhambrey took 11 wickets).
Venkatesh Prasad looked tired in the West Indies, but still bowled beautifully at Barbados where the track favoured seamers. And at Colombo in the Asia Cup, he had Pakistan down at 30 for 5. His great accuracy makes him a wonderful bowler on helpful tracks, and if Mohali is going to be anything like what everyone thinks it will be, he might well return as our best bowler.
That leaves room for the three reserves. It was tempting to put in either Vinod Kambli, who is looking good, or Amol Muzumdar, who has scored a lot of runs in the last one and a half years. But VVS Laxman deserves another chance, is a versatile batsman, enjoys the captain's confidence and is a very good reserve fielder. Given that India might field three seamers, a reserve seamer is necessary and I would go in for Mohanty over Harvinder Singh because the former is more consistent, gives fewer loose balls and is therefore, at the batsmen more often.
The choice for the reserve spinner was between Kulkarni and Chauhan. There is a theory that you pick off spinners against left handers, and Sri Lanka are likely to have at least three in the top order. But Chauhan, in recent times, seems to have lost his fizz. I suspect he is trying to ensure that his action looks completely clean. That is strange, because he has passed a Test and is therefore free to bowl the way he has all these years.
Kulkarni looked very good in Pakistan in the one-dayers, and because of his great height should bowl better on bouncy wickets. Had this been a dusty turner, I might still have suggested Venkatapathy Raju -- but nobody seems to talk about him anymore; which is both sad and cruel because he was a match winner on certain surfaces.
If I was a middle order man like Sharath or Muzumdar, both of whom are playing for the Board President's XI, I might have stifled a desire to appear desperate because the Indian middle order just now doesn't appear to have too much room for a newcomer to squeeze himself in. But if I was Jaffer or Khoda, I would watch this match very closely.
Which means the only person I haven't even felt the need to discuss is Anil Kumble. He is in top form, took eleven wickets in the Irani Trophy, several more in a couple of Ranji games and, in his silent manner, seems set to prove a few people wrong.
What joy that will be!