India's missing piece

Cricket

India's missing piece

Key men: Kieron Pollard (left) and Angelo Mathews are valuable assets to their sides. AFP/AP

Every once in a while, it’s a topic that comes up for discussion. Every single time, though, the discussion ends with ‘if only’. If only Irfan Pathan had developed along expected lines, and not lost the swing that made him such a potent threat with the new ball. If only Jai Prakash Yadav, or Abhishek Nayar, had taken the admittedly few chances that came their way. If only Roger Binny or Madan Lal, indeed the great Kapil Dev, had been born a couple of decades later. If only…

It’s an ‘if only’ conundrum that India will have to live with until they unearth a medium-pacer who can bat, or a batsman who can bowl medium-pace, if not better, of a reasonable degree, at least in one-day cricket.

What Mahendra Singh Dhoni wouldn’t give to have a Sourav Ganguly or an Ajay Jadeja in his squad! Not necessarily in terms of the names, but in terms of what they brought to the table, with that handy mix of flamboyant batsmanship and gentle medium-pace with just a hint of swing, asking batsmen to make their own pace and to adjust to the wobbling cricket ball.

What, indeed, would Dhoni not give to have the services of Sachin Tendulkar the occasional medium-pacer. The little man is the complete package, a prodigious swinger of the cricket ball early in his career even if control wasn’t always his forte. In Pakistan in 2006, after several years of bowling only an assortment of spin, he suddenly started to bowl seam-up in the one-dayers, and with excellent results too.
Tendulkar the bowler, though, is increasingly less and less on view following a series of injuries, and on the rare occasion that he does bowl, it is spin rather than medium-pace. What a loss!

Almost every other major team in this World Cup has a top-order batsman who can bowl at least a half-dozen overs of medium-pace – sometimes even better than that – on a consistent basis. Australia possess Shane Watson’s versatility, South Africa are blessed to have Jacques Kallis, easily the best all-rounder in the history of cricket. New Zealand can fall back on the likes of Jesse Ryder and James Franklin, the West Indies have their own answer in Kieron Pollard, Paul Collingwood does that job for England, while Abdul Razzaq, not necessarily a top-order bat but who has excellent batting credentials, is Pakistan’s answer to the aforementioned group, and Sri Lanka have their ace in the pack in the shape of the impressive, highly resourceful Angelo Mathews. When the junior Pathan was firing on all cylinders, however brief that phase might have been, he lent a great deal of balance and presented the team with plenty of options. India often used him in the top-order, either to pinch-hit or to bat through the innings; his ability to get the cricket ball to swing both ways made him an obvious candidate to take the new ball, and it allowed the think-tank to field the additional batsman or bowler, depending on the conditions, because effectively, he was two cricketers rolled into one.

Irfan PathanHis dramatic loss of bowling form, complemented by a succession of injuries that have seen him miss a whole season of domestic cricket, has almost irrevocably altered the balance of the Indian limited-overs eleven. India have been loathe to play the fifth specialist bowler, opting to ride on the strength of their batting riches. Consequently, they have been forced to alternate between three seamers and one spinner, and a 2-2 composition, when an additional string to their bow would have been more than welcome.

The impact cricketers like Watson, Kallis, Mathews and Pollard can make on a 50-over contest is all too obvious. Perhaps Kallis and, to a certain extent Watson, alone can fit into the squad on the strength of either their batting or their bowling alone; the final package, a mix of intelligent batting and more than medium-paced bowling is precisely what international captains dream of. While Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting are fortunate in that their dreams have long since become a reality, Dhoni is still awaiting the emergence of that dream all-round cricketer, not necessarily a genuine all-rounder but someone who can integrate his top-order batting credentials with a useful few overs of seam-up. India can’t be accused of not trying. They have cast the net far and wide, identifying potential all-round cricketers with the wherewithal to cope with the demands of international cricket, but they haven’t necessarily kept the faith. A little more patience and confidence in the personnel chosen sporadically might have been a more prudent course of action, but the clamour for results and the supposed catastrophe of a loss have tied the hands of successive team managements who have occasionally been forced to shelve long-term plans.

Indeed, in today’s Indian set-up, the top half is heavy with batting specialists and the bottom half with bowling specialists. It’s not an ideal scenario in this era of all-round cricketers, where specialists are considered a bit of an anachronism. Under the circumstances as they exist, mainly thrust upon them by injuries, India can’t expect either Tendulkar or Virender Sehwag to bowl consistently; under any  circumstances, they can’t expect more than the odd run from Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel and S Sreesanth. The all-round skills so essential for the making of a successful team in the one-day arena are conspicuously absent so far as India are concerned; if they go on to win the World Cup, it will at one level be a mini-miracle, a classic case of banking on their strengths simply because they had no other choice.

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