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September 11, 1997


Like a drought in a desert...

Harsha Bhogle

India have a strange problem of affluence and a rather more predictable problem of poverty as they leave for Toronto to win some prestige and, perhaps, a trophy. In that order.

The affluence comes at the top of the batting order, where there is variety and a latent solidity that so needs to be bolstered by confidence. The poverty follows in the middle order and extends to the bowling. With the fielding, I'm afraid, there is a complete famine.

Most of India's recent experiments with the bat have come off, and none more so than the move to ask Sourav Ganguly to open the batting. Exactly a year after his omission from the Indian team produced typically passionate howls of protest from his beloved Calcutta, Ganguly returns to Toronto as the vital link in the Indian batting order.

There is no doubt at all that having a left hander at the top creates problems for bowlers who like to bowl a consistent line and work at the batsmen. With the number of singles being taken, they seem to have to alternate all the time between a left hander and a right hander, and it seems that the lefties are winning the battle just now. Virtually every country has one now (Chanderpaul, Kirsten, Anwar, Jayasuriya) and if England don't, it is perhaps because the wind takes a bit longer to blow there.

In his early days in the job, Ganguly seemed just a bit cramped on the leg side, which was very unusual for one so gifted. And for one who comes from a land where whipping the ball off the pads comes as naturally as hitting the ball on the seam does to South Africans. But, and this is the great value of experience, the moment Ganguly experienced some security in his new batting number (the word is that the captain had something to do with it), the leg side shots started to appear and, if the evidence of Sri Lanka points to anything at all, it is that Ganguly is entering a wonderful phase as a one-day opening batsman.

The improvement on the leg side means that the singles can now come on both sides of the wicket, he can feed Tendulkar with the strike a little more consistently and therefore, the need to play that ugly hoick over mid-wicket has been eliminated.

It should also mean, hopefully, that Tendulkar will not feel the need to play similar shots.

I believe there were two reasons behind Tendulkar's apparent need to score, as Bishan Bedi once memorably said, 'quicker than Tendulkar'. For one, the singles were not coming quickly enough and so, if the first four or five balls had produced just one or two runs, he felt the need to set the balance straight with a boundary off the last ball. And partly, at least, Ganguly was to blame for that. The other reason was a complete lack of confidence in the bowling leading to a constant state of dissatisfaction with the run-rate.

While little can be done just yet about reason two, Ganguly's increasingly mature displays at the other end will, hopefully, calm his captain down. Both batsmen have the ability to hit a boundary an over in the first fifteen overs without needing to improvise. If they can pick up four singles or a couple of twos, India will have a great start.

Mere hope? No. Confidence.

The experiment with Robin Singh has worked splendidly and, ironically, has produced a bit of a problem with the batting order. If Robin continues to bat at number three, and if Rahul Dravid has to be played at number five, it means Ajay Jadeja again bats at number six which as Sunil Gavaskar told me recently, was a bit of a waste. The oldest rules in the one-day game are that you bat fifty overs and that your best batsmen face as many balls as possible. For that to happen, they have to come out earlier.

Gavaskar thinks that Jadeja should bat at number three or four, depending on where the team wants Azharuddin to bat. He prefers Jadeja at number three because it will mean, in addition, that Azhar bats at his favoured number. "You can't expect him to score sixty or seventy if he gets such few overs to bat. He got a chance to play a long innings recently and look what he came up with. If he gets more balls to face, you never know, he might even produce a 150."

Gavaskar advocates the return of Robin to number six or seven, because he identifies the absence of a quick run-getter in that position as a problem. We have tended to ignore Robin's contribution at that position because he has invariably produced cameos. Jadeja said recently that people only looked at the overall number of runs a batsman gets, rather than the situation he gets them in, and the fact that Robin has a strike rate, in the recent past, of around 100 is proof of what Jadeja is saying.

It would be a bit unfair to Robin, but I believe the century he got at number three will make him an even better batsman at number six. That leaves the very ticklish question of number five.

Rahul Dravid is falling into the kind of trap that Sanjay Manjrekar did - where technical correctness becomes a constraint instead of a qualification. This is where one-day cricket produces the worst out of a batsman. This is the reason nobody who plays the one day game tends to rank it above Test cricket. For Dravid to get, say, 45 from 65 or 70 balls is fine if the first four have provided a flier and he needs to ensure against a fall of wickets. But at the moment, India tend to take a bit of a nap in the middle overs and are, as a result, too groggy when they wake up at the slog to apply the finishing kick.

Without meaning to be unfair to Dravid, I think his best one-day position is number three. It is, perhaps, his only position. It was there that he batted so outstandingly in Toronto last year and where he got that classic century against Pakistan in the Independence Cup. But if India cannot bat him there, they need to consider seriously whether Vinod Kambli offers a better option at number five.

The essence of one-day cricket is in adopting a horses for courses attitude, and if the situation requires that Dravid miss a game or two, so be it. I do not believe leaving a player out of a one-day game has anywhere near the same significance as leaving him out of a Test side. That would be a major blow, and would raise questions about one's future in the game. But in one-day cricket, it is like being absent for one episode and making a reappearance later.

I would tend to choose between Dravid and Kambli, depending on how the wicket is expected to play. If it is a belter, and if Dravid is not going to bat at number three, I would play Kambli. If it is a tricky wicket, I would bat Dravid at three, Jadeja at five, and leave Kambli out.

Given the uncertainty over the wickets at Toronto, though the groundsman has certified that the wickets are conducive to a good run-chase, I would go with this kind of mental planning. Remember, in last year's final, a total of around 210 turned out to be a matchwinning score. In a low-scoring match, Dravid's solidity would be very handy (he played a match-winning innings of 46 from 92 balls in match three last year).

While India must ponder over their batting strategy, Pakistan have a far more settled look to them. The top six are virtually sure of their places and the only variable really is Shahid Afridi. Pakistan can either play him at number two, alongside Saeed Anwar, or at number three in the pinch-hitting slot if the first wicket goes down early, or down at number six after Malik who is himself such an wonderful end-overs player - besides being proof that class doesn't require a player to slog. The only problem with moving Afridi around is that Pakistan then have to find the right place for the captain, and I believe their final decision will depend on where Rameez Raja is most comfortable. Ijaz Ahmed, Inzamam ul Huq and Malik can bat anywhere and that is a pretty solid line-up.

It must also fill Tendulkar with envy that between them, Afridi and Malik, who both win positions as batsmen alone, can easily bowl ten overs and if the situation requires, a few more. That is the kind of flexibility that wins Pakistan matches. Add to that the fact that in Moin Khan, they have a genuine all-rounder in the one-day game, contributing with both bat and gloves, and that Azhar Mahmood has scored a fair amount of runs on the A tour, and you realise why batting, in spite of traditionally being the weaker link, isn't too much of a problem.

In the one-day game, you expect the batsmen to score enough runs for the bowlers to defend. The definition of 'enough' is what the game is all about.

And I suspect that Rameez Raja has a far better idea of how many runs is 'enough' than Sachin Tendulkar does.

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