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April 16, 1999


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Give unto Caesar...

Harsha Bhogle

There is a widespread feeling in India, and among Indians overseas judging from the mail we get on Rediff, that the selectors always get it wrong. They are the like the guys who work at the weather office; wonderful whipping boys at all times. Sadly, in our cricket, there has been a legacy of getting it wrong (going to England in 1996 with three seamers and four spinners, remember!) and by that reckoning, when they get it right, it should make news.

But saying that the selectors got it right isn't interesting enough because that leaves us with no one to blame if things go wrong. Well, things have gone wrong this year and we must be ready to deposit the blame elsewhere because, apart from experimenting once too often in the Pepsi Cup, they have got everything right.

That is a depressing and frustrating thought but that is the truth. And the team that they have come up with for the World Cup is the best possible one at the moment. I waited long enough for the announcement to sink in, but my view is no different from what it was when I first heard it. This is the best possible.

So how do we explain the sudden return of Debashish Mohanty? I think his selection, after not getting a game in New Zealand, is an exercise in hope and an acknowledgement that there is nobody else around. I thought, and I wrote on Rediff at the time, that he should have made the initial cut of 19 because I had assumed that India would pick four new ball bowlers for the World Cup and would therefore look at five in their shortlist. They didn't, and that was a huge statement in favour of the untested Laxmi Rattan Shukla.

Shukla got two games in the Pepsi Cup. At Nagpur he went for 32 from 4 overs and looked extremely raw. When Ranatunga attacked him, he reacted by trying to bowl quicker, which suggested that spirit was conquering intellect. And at Mohali, Ajay Jadeja (who has been a breath of fresh air as captain) gave him ten in a row so that he could have a long spell while the field restrictions were on. He looked good though he benefitted from the fact that the Pakistan batsmen didn't seem too keen to attack. I think he will play again for India but he could do with a couple of seasons against pros in domestic cricket like Ajay Sharma, Vinod Kambli, MV Sridhar, Vijay Bharadwaj etc.

And so with Shukla ruled out, and the need for four seamers, the selectors had to look around once again. There was a suggestion that they go in for Ashish Nehra, but I think the fact that Mohanty has had some good performances in heavy conditions tilted the balance in his favour. He did very well in Toronto in 1997 and that winter, bowled outstandingly in Guwahati against the Sri Lankans on a cold, misty morning. The other factor that might have gone in his favour is that he bowls off an awkward, open chested action and can sometimes be difficult to pick. Against teams that don't know what to expect, the surprise value might see him through.

The only other decision that had to be made was Khurasia vs Kambli. I think Kambli was the front runner but the selectors did not see enough of him. All they got was one innings and I think that was unfortunate. Khurasia was very impressive at Pune where he got 57 from 45 balls on a lovely track. He was lucky as well that he came in with 18 overs to go but in all fairness, he took advantage of that opportunity and displayed great confidence. Really, after that, the selectors had to go for him. I must confess I would have done the same, but I would have had a lump in my throat if I had to break the news to Kambli because he is such a big hearted person and has been so terribly unlucky.

This is a team without characters. It has people in it who tend to embrace gloom; who look long faced the morning after a bad match and who let disappointment rule them. It is a team that needs someone lively, even someone silly, to drive a bad game away and bring a smile back for the next one. Kambli was the right person for that but sadly, that quality can only be an add-on, it cannot be a deciding factor in selection and so India will have to look elsewhere to drive the blues away.

Ajay Jadeja might well be that person, for he has been wonderfully positive in the few games that he has been in charge. He has been bold with his field placements and bowling changes and hasn't tried to shy away from the truth at a post-defeat press conference. He will be a very good vice-captain in England and India must now take the additional step of inviting Sachin Tendulkar at the inner conferences that always follow the team meeting for these are the two most positive cricketers in the squad.

Sadaagoppan Ramesh's selection will give the team some bench strength which is vital in a tournament that is so long. But watching him and Rahul Dravid bat together, you can't help getting the feeling that India must open with Tendulkar. Otherwise, the innings just doesn't seem to acquire momentum. These two series were meant to look at alternatives; to check how India play without Tendulkar. The tournament in Sharjah isn't over yet but the answer is pretty clear. Tendulkar doesn't only provide the runs, he provides the inspiration. He makes it easier for the others to perform.

India have also missed him in the attack for he is worth four overs in every game. Robin Singh is looking just a bit indifferent and India might need support strength at the World Cup. From that point of view Jadeja's single over, though we cannot really read too much into it, is encouraging.

As Michael Holding has said in these columns, and his is a respected voice, if India can use the three weeks before the World Cup well, they might surprise a few. And they cannot do better than to get Robin Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Ajay Jadeja and Sourav Ganguly to bowl as much as possible.

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Harsha Bhogle

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