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By Suresh Menon
For a reason that is not very clear, the job descriptions of the Indian players have undergone changes in recent matches. The confusion is most apparent in off spinner Harbhajan Singh’s approach, although in the Ireland match there was a hint, a small one no more, that he was beginning to see himself as a strike bowler. He went wicketless, but bowled with greater purpose than before.
A second player who has decided that his earlier job description fitted him best is Yuvraj Singh. His brief was simple (in theory): stay there till the end. His role as a finisher has seen India turn many matches that looked to be slipping away from them in the last four or five years. The left hander can rotate strike, look after the tail, and either grind it out or strike a few lusty blows that make a mockery of any tension in the dressing room.
His contrasting half centuries (58 in 50 against England, 50 off 75 against Ireland) have seen him reconnect to his original role after a poor 2010, a series of injuries and jokes about his fitness. His five-wicket haul was a bonus, for it is his batting that will make the difference.
India’s batting line-up is well organised, with Sachin Tendulkar dropping anchor at the top, failing which Virat Kohli slips into that role, and lower on there is Dhoni himself. All three are capable of changing gears as the team requires. In between are the left handers Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh whose work is made easier should Virender Sehwag strike as opener. Yusuf Pathan’s role has no such subtlety, and he is happy with that.
It is the bowling that lacks this flexibility. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh are the wicket takers who are also expected to keep the runs down. Munaf Patel has been unimpressive, so Dhoni will have to lay his personal prejudices aside and call up Sreeshanth. Here is a bowler whose job description is clear. He is a wicket taker. Ashish Nehra, if fully fit, could be slotted into that role, but that is a big ‘If’, and the conspiracy of silence around him is not helping.
The Ireland match helped two players, Yuvraj and Harbhajan, settle on their roles. Dhoni was playing two matches, hoping to find within the framework of a victory a settled bowling combination and a reliable strategy to minimise the fielding disasters.
By playing the same combination that tied the England game, however, India killed any chances of learning something new about the rest of the team. They have to give themselves a wider choice in the knockout games. They cannot afford to discover at the business end of the tournament that their reserve players are not match fit.
With one more game against a non-Test side, the Netherlands to come, India have some thinking to do. Should Gambhir be given another chance or Suresh Raina brought in? Should the team go in with three spinners so current form is available before the games against the West Indies and South Africa? There were some hints during the Ireland game, but India might be forced to take a leap in the dark after all.
The fielding problems continue. A batsman reprived in the first over at slip went on to make 75. During a phase when the bowling looked ordinary, it was sheer luck that the ball went to the one fielder in the team capable of a quick pick up and throw, the young Virat Kohli. That was the miracle India needed against Ireland. The Indian captain has stated often enough that nothing can be done about the fielding. But clarity in job description is another matter.