Focus on the middle order

2008 Feb 12 by Suresh Menon

The selectors have got it right by naming the 15, but the tour committee is struggling with the playing eleven.

By Suresh Menon - Dreamcricket Special Columnist

Was Andrew Symonds being churlish by hurling down a wide to end the Melbourne one-dayer? With sledging no longer a major portion of their tactics, were Australia handicapped? Are we getting paranoid about the whole thing? Are cricket and cricketers being over-analysed, an inevitable result of the extensive coverage?

Selectors and umpires are the two sets of people most abused in cricket. Yet when they get it right there is hardly a ripple. There is no way of knowing how many brilliant umpiring decisions have influenced matches; it is easier to pick the mistakes and blow them up. Likewise with team selections. The only people who can get away with getting it wrong are the critics and columnists. We recover quickly. A couple of months ago, Ishant Sharma, for example, read in a newspaper column that he was no good, that he looked out of place in the Indian team.

Today Ishant Sharma is the toast of the country, looming as large in Rick Pontingʼs nightmares as Sachin Tendulkar once did in Shane Warneʼs. And the selectors have done well to keep Ganguly out of the one-day squad despite the threat of the usual effigy-burning and breast-beating by Kolkata intellectuals.

Yet, in the euphoria of beating Australia for the first time in 22 years in Melbourne, one thing must not be forgotten. Our middle order is virtually non-existent. It is not that we do not have the players. But the combination is not working.

It seems that we have not yet got over the victory in the World Twenty20. Yuvraj needs to be nursed into form in the manner Virender Sehwag was; if Robin Uthappa is wondering what his role in the team is, he needs to be told; and what crime has Suresh Raina committed that he is ignored like this? And when will Dinesh Karthick get a look-in?

Let us come to terms with the fact that Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid might not play one-day cricket again. We cannot keep looking back over our shoulders.

The Top 3 - Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir - are settled, and so are the Bottom 3 - Irfan Pathan, Sreeshanth and Ishant Sharma. In between, there is skipper Dhoni who sees himself as a floater in the batting order. That leaves one spinner, either Harbhajan Singh or Piyush Chawla, and three batsmen in the middle.

The selectors have got it right by naming the 15, but the tour committee is struggling with the playing eleven. There are three matches against Sri Lanka and two against Australia to follow. Somehow before the final round of matches, India should get their combination right. An early win - as against Australia now - means that they can afford to rotate the players. The temptation to bowl Ishant into the ground must be resisted. A tri-series is as much about winning as about keeping the players fit and match-ready.

It is easy to assume that Dhoni is keeping faith in the team which stood by him at the Twenty20 championships in South Africa. Looking over your shoulder is not always a healthy exercise. A twisted head cannot guarantee clear thought.

The captain (and the fans) will argue that it is better to win despite poor selection than to lose after getting everything right. True enough. But that might mean half the team doing the work of the whole, and is a recipe for injuries, burn outs and sheer fatigue.

This article was written on Feb 11, 2008