February 16, 2007

Ramesh Powar’s exclusion – Untenable and Unpalatable

By H Natarajan

In all my years of covering cricket, never have I been so certain of what the composition of a touring Indian side would be like well before the selection. And, I am sure, there are many like me following India’s cricketing fortunes. The certainty does not stem from players in imperious form who have left their selection in no doubt, nor is it because of dearth of choices. Quite simply, a clear pattern was seen in protecting a few out-of-form senior players in the run-up to the World Cup.

My heart goes out to Ramesh Powar. If selections could be challenged in the court of law, I dare say that he would have displaced Harbhajan Singh from the World Cup squad. In the last 23 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) since April last year, Harbhajan has taken just 20 wickets at an extravagant average of 43.85. During this period, he has just one three-wicket haul to his credit.
Now let’s examine how Powar has fared in the grudgingly sporadic chances that he got in the same period. He played two matches in Pakistan last year and finished with analysis of 1 for 27 and the wicket of Inzamam-ul-Haq in his quota of 10 overs in his first outing. (Harbhajan, in comparison, had 0 for 47 in his ten overs in this game).

In the next ODI, Powar bowled India to victory, taking the wickets of Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Yusuf and Abdul Razzaq at a total cost of 61 runs. (Harbhajan had 1 for 57 in this game).

Powar then went to the Caribbean where, in three ODIs, he had figures of 2 for 38 from ten overs, 0 for 59 from ten, and 2 for 56 (Chris Gayle and Brian Lara) from nine. Harbhajan, in comparison, had 1 for 32, 1 for 33 and 0 for 42 in those three games.

The Mumbai off-spinner got just one opportunity in the Champions Trophy where he bowled India to victory with figures of 8-1-24-3 (Harbhajan’s analysis in this game read 8-0-27-1).

And in the two games he got against the West Indies in the recent series, Powar bowled India to another win with figures of 10-0-42-3 at Cuttack (Harbhajan’s figures in this game read 10-3-39-1) and 10-0-53-2 (Lara again being one of the wickets) at Chennai, where Harbhajan did not play.

Powar did not get a single opportunity against the touring Sri Lankans, which means Harbhajan got to play five of the home games, compared to the two that the more consistent Powar got, before the side for the World Cup was picked. It’s grave injustice to a player who has turned in match-winning performances time and again in the very limited opportunities he has got. Clearly, he was seen as an inconvenience which is why he has not been played against Lanka. Compare Powar’s ODI career strike rate of 36.16 against Harbhajan’s 46.10 further highlights the preferential treatment that the latter has been getting.

In fact, Powar all but brought down the doors of the selection committee room with some compelling all-round displays in the Ranji one-dayers ahead of the World Cup selections. After finishing with figures of 10-0-28-3, he came out to bat at 29 for two and plundered 10 fours and a six to score a 40-ball 54 and masterminded Mumbai’s win against Baroda. Two days later, the day the Indian team was being picked for the World Cup, he scored 36 off 37 balls and batting at No 3 he took three frontline Gujarat wickets for 27 runs.

The selectors have sent out a horrible message by dumping a performing player in favour of a senior who has been preferred purely on past record.

The inclusion of Virender Sehwag was also a foregone conclusion – again, a selection that is based on past performances than conviction of current form. In the last 12 ODIs he has played, Sehwag’s run of scores read: 9, 8, 1, 10, 9, 17, 65, 0, 18, 11, 19 and 12 – just once he has crossed the 20-run mark. How many players would have survived in Indian cricket with that kind of scores? It’s a question that somebody like Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman may well ask with great justification.

And just before his predicable comeback, came the news of Sehwag’s cavalier attitude against coach Greg Chappell. And it’s not for the first time that the Delhi batsman was having problems with the team coach. But Sehwag had to be fitted in, for whatever reasons, and that meant overlooking insubordination, indiscipline, poor form and deserving contenders.

Had it not been the World Cup, Sehwag would not have been recalled in a hurry. But the World Cup is a quadrennial showpiece and Sehwag’s rich experience and ability to win the match on his own are factors that could make a difference if he strikes form. Six of his seven hundreds and 17 of his 24 half centuries have come in ODIs that resulted in victories for India. And in these matches he has averaged 41.34 – which is almost double of his average of 21.96 in matches not won by India.

The Indian team for the World Cup is one of the weakest in years when it comes to fielding. And in an era where top class fielding has become almost mandatory, lack of alacrity and sharpness may come to haunt India. The team may even end up paying a big price for it. With neither Mohammad Kaif nor Suresh Raina part of the equations, Yuvraj remains the only class act on the field. But even Yuvraj’s fitness is suspect and it remains to be seen how much he is willing to risk his body with the kind of acrobatics that he is eminently capable of.

A fit and in-form Irfan Pathan gives the kind of options that any team would love to have. He has shown admirable temperament when sent up the order and has performed creditably, too. That gives the team to play an extra bowler. But ever since he has lost his zip, confidence and his way as a bowler, Indian cricket has suffered badly. He does not look part of the first XI as things stand. Munaf Patel’s fitness could also be a worry. Both Ajit Agarkar and S Sreesanth are wicket-taking bowlers, but both also tend to be expensive, which leaves a heavy burden on Zaheer Khan as the No 1 new-ball option. I would think Zaheer, Munaf and Agarkar would be the trio that India may go in for the opening match of the cup.

Anil Kumble has done well in the West Indies and if he is given the confidence, he could still be a match-winner. However, against teams with a plethora of left-handers, I suspect it will be Harbhajan who would be preferred. One can also be certain that given the slowness of the Caribbean tracks, both Sachin Tendulkar and Sehwag will have – or should have – a meaningful role as bowlers.

India’s recent slump has much to do with the collective loss of form as also injuries to key players that kept them out for long stretches. From where they find themselves now, the team has only way to go: up. Sourav Ganguly has fought his way back and has shown flashes of his vintage brilliance. Zaheer, too, has comeback with the kind of assurance he had shown at the peak of his prowess. Tendulkar has raised visions of regaining his lost touch and confidence. If other key players can also regain their form and/or recover from their injuries, the team could well use that momentum to peak at the right moment.

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