August 22, 2002

Time to try out a few options

Having to win a Test to just keep the series alive is an unenviable situation. Invariably the pressure builds up. India find themselves in exactly this position on the eve of the third Test against England at Leeds. What compounds the depressing scenario is the fact that the visitors do not appear to have the firepower in the bowling to draw level in the series.

The onus will thus again be on the batsmen, and in this department, the Indians are strong enough to more than hold their own and help draw the game. But already being one down in the four-match rubber, India will have to bowl England out twice to win, and if the totals run up by the home team thus far are any evidence, then the bowlers will be hard-put to bowl the side out even once.

Anil Kumble
© Reuters
So are the Indians in a no-win situation? Not exactly. They do have a couple of things going for them. For starters, Headingley is one among only three English venues where India have registered a Test win. If anything, the Indians should draw inspiration from their 279-run win in 1986, the last of their triumphs in England, even though three other Tests (in 1952, 1959 and 1967) were lost and the rain-affected game in 1979 drawn.

Then there is the current batting strength. With a big total in the kitty, even toothless attacks suddenly develop fangs. England is also struggling with the bowling line-up, thanks to injuries, and as the Indians proved at Nottingham, their attack too lacks firepower. There is enough evidence to suggest that India's batting is as strong - if not stronger - than England's. Given this background, if India bat first and run up a huge total, they can put England under pressure.

But for that to happen, the bowling, with its limited resources, must perform above its potential. But who should constitute the bowling line-up? So far in the series, the Indians have gone in for three seamers and one spinner, and it has got them nowhere. Has the time come then for two seamers and two spinners? Neither Anil Kumble nor Harbhajan Singh has covered himself with glory thus far in the series, and the overseas record of the duo is anything but impressive. But then again, what have the seamers achieved? Except for Zaheer Khan, who has achieved some degree of consistency, neither Ajit Agarkar nor Ashish Nehra has been particularly impressive. Agarkar in fact has done well with the bat, but it must not be forgotten that he is in the side primarily as a bowler, and if he is unable to perform that basic duty, he should make way for others.

But who are the others? That is a moot point, for the team management really has a Hobson's choice. The only combination that has not been tried out in the series is two seamers and two spinners, so perhaps the time has come to play both Kumble and Harbhajan. In late August in England, there is a strong case to go in for a spin-oriented attack, just as it is an ideal tactic to play as many seam bowlers as possible in May-June. Surely the Indian attack cannot come in for any more punishment than it was subjected to at Lord's and Trent Bridge.

Moreover, playing both Kumble and Harbhajan could be a surprise tactic, for England may not expect the visitors to field two spinners. As any army general could tell you, a surprise tactic could well catch the enemy off guard and provide a decisive advantage.

But while there are problems and options aplenty as far as the bowling is concerned, thankfully the batting strength is as intact as ever. It may even be stronger with the inclusion of Shiv Sunder Das, who with his monumental 250 at Chelmsford has surely won back his place in the side. The diminutive opening batsman from Orissa just lacked a big score to boost his confidence, and his marathon performance must have given him a tremendous psychological boost.

SS Das
© CricInfo
Also, he and Virender Sehwag, with their contrasting styles, give the impression of being an opening pair made for each other. Two of the most successful opening combinations in Indian cricket history, Vijay Merchant-Mushtaq Ali and Sunil Gavaskar-Kris Srikkanth were also, as one critic wrote in describing the former pair, "as dissimilar as curry and rice and just as effective in combination."

There is some talk about Sanjay Bangar being asked to partner Sehwag, but there is an imperative need for playing the better batsman at the top of the order, for that is one place where there is a problem. Bangar is nowhere near Das as far as technique and temperament are concerned, and with Sourav Ganguly to operate as an additional seamer, he will also be rendered redundant as far as the bowling is concerned.