An Indian twelve with no Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Zaheer, and no Kirsten either. That’s more than half the team gone that won India the World Cup, right? And to recall the parts they had been playing leading-up to the fantastic win, a team without them, on paper, shrinks to the status of India A.
It is difficult to visualise even a quarter of the Indian population that went out on the streets and shouted the night out after the World Cup win fighting sleep to watch the India-West Indies ODI series that kicks off the nation’s cricket season 2011-12. If the TAM ratings of IPL 4 were any indicator, public interest in this clash is going to be less than lukewarm unless some bolt from the blue performances rain on our sultry summer nights.
The quality of the opposition isn’t helping things either. West Indies, true to their recent form, are still churning at the bottom of the team rankings, trying to dig even deeper. They have got full support of the WICB which has suspended Chris Gayle to further assist their downslide. Gayle’s ouster stood a chance of being forgiven had he failed to score runs in the IPL matches, justifying the WICB’s decision to drop him to recuperate from ‘poor form’.
Ever since he has managed to bag the top individual IPL honour in the matter of a month, and the WICB’s selected team nearly handed Pakistan their maiden Test series victory in the Caribbean, tables have turned. In a bid to vindicate their fair judgment and absolute understanding of cricket, the WICB have now taken disciplinary action against the man who could have made the difference, whose lifetime score on the unfair play meter needs a magnifier for viewing. Ordinary eyes like mine cannot see what stokes their ego. Maybe they think they have little at stake. Team India, on the contrary, has undertaken a youth programme to supplant the weary seniors. What they do in the next two weeks might settle a few questions.
Officially this is where the ‘Mission 2015’ starts. Unless any major twist intervenes, MS Dhoni is expected to lead India until 2015 with Gautam Gambhir as his deputy. So, Raina’s concern about putting up a good show as a captain is short-term and so less worrying. His insipid captaincy was criticised after the below-par show in Zimbabwe last season. His decision-making lacked the enterprise or intent he shows on the field. Too slow to read the situation and react, he looked much like the government of his country. He has matured as a batsman since then. It is time he redeems the ghost of the forgettable series as well.
Duncan Fletcher is expected to take this series as his orientation course to the stewardship of Indian cricket, as Gary Kirsten did during the Bangladesh tour following the 2007 World Cup. This is a crucial period for Indian cricket since the old Indian Test middle-order will require a number of replacements in the coming years.
Low intensity overseas tours like these are the ideal platform for judging a player’s various capacities. Fletcher will be looking to build up a cache of young players from this corps to take over from the retiring cricketers, who will sustain India’s march to the next level of cricketing achievements. This is the start. At the same time, he should ensure that the players do not underperform in the rush to prove their worth.
Hardly any member of the squad has any prior experience of playing international cricket in the Caribbean, while Fletcher’s last official visit in the islands in 2007 turned out to be his last commitment as England’s coach. Keeping the team together does not seem to be a problem; blending them into a unit where everyone knows and performs his role is the challenge for the new coach.
In cricketing abilities, even this India ‘A’ team outscores the West Indians comprehensively. In Dhoni’s absence, Parthiv Patel is the first-choice wicket-keeper. Patel’s batting in the last couple of years has been a revelation. His decent outings against New Zealand and South Africa guarantee him an opening slot. Wriddhiman Saha might have to sit out until Patel fails with the bat or the team management decides to play two wicket-keeper batsmen together, as has been the trend in IPL 4.
Badrinath, in the radar of national team for nearly a decade now, has got that long-awaited chance to make his mark in international cricket. Still, with the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and maybe even Yusuf Pathan to bat before him, it is immensely possible that the prospect remains elusive. It boils down to Fletcher to set up the batting order so that everyone gets his window.
Harbhajan Singh leads the bowing faculty with his wealth of experience though his record in the Caribbean is not particularly inspiring (9 wickets in 12 matches at 47.44). Port-of-Spain, the venue of the first two games and the T20, historically offers good turn.
With Gayle presumed to return after the first two ODIs, the team management will do well to let loose Ashwin and Praveen Kumar at him, the only two bowlers to put the marauder on a leash in IPL 4. Praveen is in the process of finding rhythm after coming out of injury. This series will give him the scope to experiment with his line and length as long as he does not concede too many. Munaf Patel is a certainty after a good World Cup and a brilliant IPL, where he let out some astonishing, scorching sliding dives apart from bowling.
The main problem will be the choice of the eleventh man. If India confide in Pathan’s ability with the ball, and rely on Kohli and Raina to slip in a few occasional overs, they might play a batsman.
It will be interesting to see how the batsmen settle down on the slow with variable bounce pitches after three months of run feasts in the sub-continent. Stroke-making will not be easy. A solid opening stand, flurry of short runs in the middle, and big hitting to knock off the innings – is traditionally any team’s batting plan. However, they should remember not to repeat the regular tortoise starts that Murali Vijay and Dinesh Karthik used to deliver in Zimbabwe the last time India played on slow pitches.
Every time they succeeded in laying a long opening partnership, India lost inevitably. A good player adapts fast. The West bowlers will bang it short, and nothing can give better preparation for the England series ahead.
More under scanner will be India’s fielding. Only a few months back, Yuvraj, Raina and Kohli formed one of the most foolproof off-side walls in the world. Sharma will replace Yuvraj, and Tiwari, if played, will add a few stanchions to the wall. But they will know better than to throw themselves around on the small, barren, grounds of Port-of-Spain and Antigua.
Instead of swooping down on the ball, the fielders will have to revise their fielding tactics according to the situation for prolonged effectiveness, even at the expense of the spectacle that regales us. Since West Indies have quite a few big hitters in their roster this mini-battle will be another contest to watch out for.
(Souvik Naha is currently doing research on the history of Indian cricket at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)