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By Suresh Menon
As I sit down to write this, there are 180 days, four hours, one minute and six seconds to go before the 50-over World Cup. The countdown is thoughtfully provided on the Cricinfo site. The Indian team playing in the tri-series in Sri Lanka is neither as good as their No.2 world ranking suggests nor as bad as their batting collapses against New Zealand and Sri Lanka indicate.
The series started with a question mark over the bowling attack, but it is the batting that is causing nightmares now – not to the opposition but to the supporters of the team. The only consistent area has been the fielding where there are too many slow-moving, poorly-anticipating, badly-throwing players who just cannot be hidden anywhere.
In the recent round of one-day matches, what are the lessons for India? That their batting is dependant on the trio of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir. That the bowling without Zaheer Khan lacks teeth. That inconsistency is the bane of the middle order. In short, we haven’t learnt anything new.
Should India beat New Zealand on Wednesday and go through to the final where suddenly everything comes together, they might even win the tournament. But in that case, the inherent weaknesses will be covered up. A defeat brings out the drawbacks into sharp focus; it is better to lose now and do some serious course-correction than to discover 180 days, four hours etc later that faith in some players was misplaced or that insistence on some strategies was foolish.
For, unlike in a Test match series or a tri-series or even a bi-lateral one, there is a finality about the World Cup. It is not a platform for experimentation. It is not a tournament to blood youngsters or to give players a chance because they didn’t get to play in some recent tournaments. Every slot must have a player who is best suited for it, the focus being on winning, not on creating a team for the future.
One of the first thoughts that selectors ought to be considering is whether they need to bolster the middle order with a tried and tested stalwart. Rahul Dravid, in short. There are no problems of fitness, commitment or awareness there. The middle order can play around him
A decision will have to be made soon about the likes of Rohit Sharma, Dinesh Karthik, Virat Kohli in batting and Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra and others in bowling. Are they primed for the main roles or as the supporting cast?
Dravid has responded to SOS calls before, and has been left high and dry thereafter, uncertain whether his was an ad hoc appointment or a middle-term one till the team was put back on its feet. As one of the handful of players with ten thousand runs in both forms of the game, he deserves better.
With six months (and a few hours) to go before the World Cup, this might seem like a panic-stricken reaction to a couple of bad days in the office in Sri Lanka. But if Dravid has to play, he needs to be given time to ease himself back into the slot from where he ruled for so many years. At any rate, we are still in the days of experimentation, and experiments can involve both future hopefuls and past certainties.
In fact, that will be an important aspect of the planning for the World Cup – how to ease into the team players returning to fitness after a break. Bowlers Sreeshanth, Zaheer, Harbhajan, for example. The certainties need to be handled with as much care as the border-line cases, and that is not something easily understood by those who are responsible for these things.