July 30, 2002

Bring back Harbhajan!

"Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," teaches the Bible. The Indian think tank comprising John Wright and Sourav Ganguly completely ignored this essential truth while preparing for the Lord's Test match. Despite it being common knowledge that the track at Lord's was a dry one, they decided to omit India's best spin bowler. That one decision, in my view, lost India the Test match even before it began.

The Test had provided India with the opportunity to make an ideal start to the series. The morale of the team was high following their win in the NatWest final at the same venue a couple of weeks ago. Understandably, the whole nation was expecting India to win against a English team weakened considerably by the loss of key players to injuries.

Simon Jones
© CricInfo
But by dropping Harbhajan Singh, who in my opinion is our ace bowler, the Indians played into England's hands. The only English player who seems to have any idea how to deal with the turbanator is Marcus Trescothick, without doubt their best batsman. With Trescothick out of the Test and probably the series with injury, the young off-spinner should have had no trouble in psyching the English batsmen out. Harbhajan Singh might not be as great a spinner of the ball as Muttiah Muralitharan, but he still has a potent weapon - his straighter one.

Hussain, in sharp contrast to Ganguly, knew exactly about the resources at his disposal and employed them with laudable wisdom. The English skipper had to go into this Test match without his key fast bowlers - Caddick, Gough and Tudor. To add to his woes, commercial interests nullified whatever advantage the home side enjoys when it comes to preparing the wicket for a Test match. Hussain and Fletcher, then, went for firepower in the form of young Simon Jones. The sight of the youngster hurling thunderbolts on a flat track made a deep impression on me; I feel he surely has a glittering international career ahead of him.

The English planning was meticulous; Jones and Flintoff had been given the brief to soften up the batsmen by digging it short. The two well-built young men executed this plan to perfection; Matthew Hoggard and Craig White benefited from the hostile bowling of the duo. All of which makes me wonder whether the Test match would have lasted for more than four days on a lively track. Hussain, for one, would surely have loved the prospect of unleashing his pack of fast bowlers at the Indians on a bouncy track.

Talking of the planning, there were a few instances that made me sure that the English were a better prepared and focused team than the Indians.

First, Virender Sehwag getting out to Ashley Giles at the fag end of the second evening. Sehwag was foolish enough to fall into Giles' trap, and it was the beginning of the end for India - from a position of relative strength (128/1) they squandered the initiative. Second, the decision to send Ashish Nehra as the nightwatchman was a huge blunder - sadly one of only too many by the Indians.

In contrast, the English seemed to have done a lot of homework. I am positive that the English have studied many videos of Sachin Tendulkar's batting. Tendulkar's fondness for the shot off his pads and also the attacking square-cut have come in for close scrutiny. It was the field placement in the second innings that lured Tendulkar to play across the line, and I have to laud Hussain for all the thought that went behind that dismissal.

It was by all means a thorough display of professionalism by the English team. If India's fortunes have nose-dived in the space of a fortnight, England's have bounced back after this thumping win.

It would be prudent to recall that India's bowlers gave away 325 runs in the NatWest final and only a remarkable rearguard action by Kaif and Yuvraj Singh helped India win on that day. Similarly, runs were given away and there were batting collapses to undermine India's cause in the Lord's Test.

Hussain, John Crawley and Michael Vaughan batted very well to score all those runs they made. What I fail to fathom is why the Indians couldn't put any pressure on these batsmen. Surely, Ganguly would have expected Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan to bowl much better than they did. I thought that the two left-arm seamers were guilty of bowling too short; they simply do not possess the pace to threaten any batsman by banging the ball short.

Anil Kumble does not look like running through the batting line-up; he seems to have lost his sharpness. I am sure he will be a much better bowler when attacking in tandem with Harbhajan Singh.

VVS Laxman
© CricInfo
To compound India's problems, the field placements were not attacking enough at any point. On most occasions, the English batsmen were allowed to take easy singles and rotate the strike. It is difficult to win a Test match if one goes in with such a defensive frame of mind.

The saving grace has been the batting of Laxman and Agarkar; they proved that there is some fighting spirit in the Indian camp. And it is that spirit that they should carry with them in the remaining Test matches. All is not lost and I am sure that the two teams are evenly balanced. India will have to do some major re-thinking ahead of the second Test. For starters, Harbhajan Singh should replace Nehra. It would also not be a bad idea to bring in young Parthiv Patel to replace the struggling Ajay Ratra behind the stumps.