Limited Overs, Unlimited Worries – Travails of The Men in Blue
By H Natarajan
The angst of a nation mad about cricket is palpable. The team that was on a high till not long ago has slipped to a worrisome nadir. The World Cup is just three months ahead and India finds itself under a humungous mound of problems in the abridged version of the game.
Greg Chappell, the man who arrived on the Indian cricket scene like manna from heaven, is today pilloried from all quarters. There are disquieting rumours that he is unwanted after the World Cup. That, in itself, is not a good sign. It simply means there is acceptance that there is no hope for the team at the World Cup. Of course, the rumours were effectively – and predictably – dismissed by the Indian coach.
One of the biggest worries for the team is Rahul Dravid’s loss of batting form. Dravid was one player in the team whose consistency against all comers, in all countries and in all conditions was astounding. That’s what made him, alongside Ricky Ponting, as the finest batsman in contemporary cricket. But when the captain is besieged by such travails, it affects his thought process and, consequently, the team as well. The West Indies, at their pomp under Clive Lloyd, targeted the opposing captain because they rightly believed – and proved – that when the head wobbled it was easy to target the rest of the body.
Though Dravid got scores of 49 and 52 in his last two outings in the Champions Trophy, his scores preceding that - 11, 0, 15, 18, 9*, 26, 6, 0, 7 and 4 - tell a tale. With just 96 runs (average 10.66) from 10 ODIs from the best batsman in the team, it was not exactly surprising to see India win just two ODIs in that stretch.
Highs and trough are part and parcel of every sport and no player, however great, has gone through an extended career without having to endure slumps in form. Dravid’s form and consistency has been phenomenal in the past and the law of averages has finally caught up with him.
There are lot many reasons for the team’s failure than merely Dravid’s loss of form. In fact, it’s the collective failure of the entire side. Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Irfan Pathan have all fared poorly since the tour of the West Indies – a period in which the Indian bowlers have also equally done equally miserably, especially Pathan, Harbhajan Singh and RP Singh.
But let’s first analyse the batting debacle a bit deeper. Before his 65 against Australia at Mohali, Sehwag’s run of scores have been 9, 8, 1, 10, 9 and 17 while Dhoni scored just one half century in 11 ODIs outings since the tour of West Indies during which time he scored 224 runs at an average of 22. Pathan has crossed the 20-run mark just once in his last nine innings while Suresh Raina’s highest score in his last 13 innings is 34 in which time he has averaged just 16.
Strangely, it’s the relatively more successful players who have been at the receiving end of the selectors and/or critics. Never before in his career has Sachin Tendulkar found so many people questioning his very existence in international cricket, yet the Master came back from a long injury-led hibernation and has since emerged the most successful of all the Indian batsmen. India looks up to players of his stature in matches against a team as powerful as Australia. In the past, Tendulkar has been especially severe on Australia. An example of that came between October 2003 and January 2004 when in matches at home and away against Australia, he ran up scores of 100, 68, 89, 45, 63 and 86 in six successive innings. In sharp contrast to that, in six innings thereafter against Australia, he has scored 5, 8, 27, 12, 4 and 10. That has not really helped his cause – and that of the team.
Mohammad Kaif is another Indian batsman who has done much better than his colleagues. Kaif, in fact, topped the Indian averages in the ODI series in the Caribbean, scoring three half-centuries from five games. However, he has not quite enjoyed the confidence of the selectors and played just one match in the Champions Trophy – the one against Australia at Mohali.
The productivity of both Pathan and Harbhajan has also seen a big slump since the tour of the West Indies. And when two key bowlers are faring badly in a side which is not really known for bowling riches, it’s bound to reflect on the results.
Pathan has got just 11 wickets in his last 10 ODIs at average close to 30 per wicket. Harbhajan’s performance has been even more disastrous. The off-spinner has taken just 11 wickets from 13 ODIs, conceding well in excess of 37 per wicket.
Ajit Agarkar has been the pick of the Indian bowlers, taking 17 wickets in the last 12 ODIs. Ramesh Powar, Agarkar’s Mumbai team-mate, captured 3 for 24 against England in the Champions Trophy, but that was his only outing in the tournament. He has since been dropped for the tour of South Africa. Some of the recent moves by the selection committee has been baffling, most notably the exclusion of Agarkar after the ODI series in West Indies where he got nine wickets at just over 18 in the one-day series.
Till the other day, Anil Kumble was considered old and lacking in athleticism for the overs-limit format, but he is back now for the tour of South Africa. Kumble should never have been dropped – he played his last ODI 14 months ago - and his return has to be seen as a belated justice to his abilities as a match-winner. In typical Kumblesque fashion, he has shown lots of grit and determination to improve his batting in the evening of his career. Bearing testimony to that are scores of 58, 32, 30, 21, 43, 45 from nine outings in Tests this year – not bad for a tailender.
Wasim Jaffer induction into the one-day team by the Vengsarkar-chaired selection committee is an indication that the selectors admit that the opening slot still has an unsettled and uneasy look about it. Jaffer is yet to play in ODIs, though he has been in the international scene for six years.
The Indian team looks a far cry from the team that had made the world sit up and take notice after 17 wins chasing targets. But the team’s poor displays in the West Indies, Malaysia and in the Champions Trophy have sent their confidence level plummeting. The morale of the team cannot be high and very few players can be said to be certainties. And with the tour of South Africa ahead where the bouncy tracks and the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Andre Nel and Shaun Pollock to exploit favourable conditions, things do not look realistically rosy for the Indian team.