Pushing Tendulkar and Dravid around
Teams gearing up for a mega-event like the World Cup or the Olympics start their preparations months in advance. Under the circumstances, it is heartening to learn from reports that the Indian team management is already thinking of changes in terms of strategy and team composition for the World Cup in South Africa which, at the moment of writing, is around nine months away.
There are two objections to Dravid being asked to keep wickets. One, as one of the side's principal batsmen yes, even in limited-overs cricket he should be left free to concentrate on his work in front of the stumps.
According to reports, Rahul Dravid will once again go back to his all-too-familiar though quite unwelcome role behind the stumps for the first one-day international against the West Indies. Given the fact that the team management is looking ahead to the World Cup, one has to view this development with some apprehension, for it means that Dravid may once again be considered for a permanent role behind the stumps even though there is a regular wicket-keeper around in Ajay Ratra. The move sounds wholly unnecessary and retrograde.
During the 1999 World Cup in England, Nayan Mongia was the side's regular keeper, but that did not stop the team management at the time from fielding Dravid as the stumper in the game against Sri Lanka. Thankfully India batted first and Dravid scored 145, sharing in a record partnership of 318 for the second wicket with Sourav Ganguly. Not unexpectedly, his work as a keeper just about passed muster. Mercifully, the needless experiment was not repeated, and Mongia returned for the remaining matches.
There are two objections to Dravid being asked to keep wickets. One, as one of the side's principal batsmen yes, even in limited-overs cricket he should be left free to concentrate on his work in front of the stumps. After all, he is not a specialist wicket-keeper batsman like Adam Gilchrist. Secondly, after a couple of years of groping in the dark, the selectors have finally found a capable youngster behind the stumps. Ratra's keeping, good in his first couple of Tests, has improved further, as his catch to dismiss Brian Lara in the Kingston Test illustrated. He has also proved his credentials with the bat by getting a hundred in only his third Test, just when it was least expected. This is the time, then, to give him all encouragement, and dropping him - even temporarily - is bound to have an adverse effect on the youngster.
According to John Wright, Ganguly has already spoken to Dravid, who is reported to have said that he has no problem in keeping wicket. Dravid is too much of a gentleman cricketer and a team man to raise any protest. He has been willing to play any role "in the team's interests," as the cliché goes even that of a reluctant opening batsman. But just how far the team's interests have been served in shoving him into the role of opening batsman or wicket-keeper is open to question. In the long run, such steps are bound to have an adverse impact on both Dravid's batsmanship and the team's interests.
It is argued that playing Dravid as a specialist batsman means that the team management will have to sacrifice one of the four youngsters - Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Mongia and Virender Sehwag. True; besides being capable batsmen, the fours are very good fielders who can also chip in with a few overs of spin. But there is nothing wrong in making youngsters earn their India caps and a regular place in the side. It should not be handed over to them gratis.
The other decision to play Sachin Tendulkar at number three or four when India are chasing big scores is a welcome step. Wright could not have explained the rationale behind the move better. "We have been failing in our bid to chase big scores for some time now, and we felt that it would be great to have a batsman like Sachin to finish the job at the death."
At the moment, there are four opening batsmen in the team Ganguly, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dinesh Mongia. It may be a good idea to shuffle the order a bit in the series against the West Indies and try out various combinations. In the long run specifically keeping the World Cup in mind it may be worthwhile to have two of Ganguly, Sehwag and Mongia open the batting and drop Tendulkar down the order. This series and the tour of England give the team management the right opportunities to try and settle the batting order at the top with the World Cup in mind.
Indeed, it sounds a good idea to have an experienced, classy and highly skilled batsman like Tendulkar to guide the team home in pressure situations from the pivotal number four slot. It is worth recalling at this juncture the circumstances in which Tendulkar first opened the Indian innings in a one-day international in New Zealand in 1994.
At the time, following the retirement of Kris Srikkanth, the need of the hour was a player who could take maximum advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. Tendulkar opted to go in first after an injury to Navjot Singh Sidhu, and the experiment was such a whopping success that he stayed at the top, later forming, with Ganguly, one of the most destructive opening pairs in limited-overs cricket.
Now the situation is a tad different. With Ganguly, Sehwag and Mongia around and all of them are capable of belting the attack in the initial stages perhaps the time has indeed come for Tendulkar to be slotted at number four when India are pursuing a big target. India's record as chasers is anything but impressive, and perhaps this move could improve that record. Innovation is the name of the game, and strategy and tactics, thinking and planning have a place in one-day cricket.
It is good that the team management is taking a long-term view. But then, as I said, the thinking and planning should be along logical lines and not muddled. The move to push Tendulkar down the order has some sound reasoning behind it. The move to push Dravid once again behind the stumps is both unfair to Ratra and detrimental to the team's interests in the long run.