Kartik was the find of the series
It is not often that India loses a one-day international series at home. Their record in the limited overs game is as impressive as their record in Test cricket. In 2000, India even got the better of the redoubtable South Africans and last year they ran Australia, the reigning world champions, close before losing by three matches to two. On the evidence of this, the loss in the just-concluded series against the West Indies might be difficult to digest for some.
On the contrary, while there is still some cause for concern as far as the team composition for the World Cup is concerned one need not take the final result at its face value. In the first place it must not be forgotten that India were without Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan for the entire series of seven matches. Then at various times during the contests and for different reasons India lost the services of Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
Indeed, continuing to look at developments from the positive angle, the non-availability of the stars and the decision to experiment gave the fringe players a chance to bid for a permanent place in the squad. The selectors also took the opportunity to give talented young players the big break. It is another matter that cricketers like Dinesh Mongia, Jai Prakash Yadav, Reetinder Singh Sodhi and Lakshmipathy Balaji did not make the most of the chances that came their way.
On the other hand, players like Sanjay Bangar and Murali Kartik came up with eye-catching performances and took a firm step towards cementing their places in a full-strength squad. The former showed distinct signs of emerging as the all-rounder the World Cup side will undoubtedly require while Kartik's left arm spinners frequently had the Caribbean batsmen in trouble. Kartik's strong temperament allied to his undoubted skill makes him an ideal bowler for Test cricket too.
There was a clamour for long that both Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif batted too low down the order. The absence of some of the stars gave them the opening to bat a notch or two up the order and the result was at best a mixed bag. Once Tendulkar and Ganguly return, it is apparent that the two will again have to bat in the lower half of the order. With Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman in the line-up, there does not seem to be any other option.
With the attacks of both sides coming in for a lot of stick, it was inevitable that the Indian bowling too would pose problems. The emergence of Kartik was a big plus and one must assume that Javagal Srinath will go to South Africa again, at least on the basis of his vast experience, if not exactly as the spearhead. It must be admitted that even at 33 there were times in the seven matches that he looked quite menacing.
The return of Zaheer will no doubt strengthen the seam attack while Ajit Agarkar did just about enough to guarantee his place in the World Cup squad. In any avatar - as relief seam bowler, a pinch-hitter or utility man - his claims cannot be overlooked. There must be a question mark over Ashish Nehra while Balaji was a sore disappointment. With the seam bowling resources rather limited, it is obvious that spin will continue to play a notable part in shaping India's fortunes in the World Cup. Kartik remains the most promising prospect.
One is not sure whether the team management will continue with the experiments in the seven one-day internationals in New Zealand next month, the final engagement for the Indian side before the World Cup. But one thing is clear. The experimentation process against the West Indies did not help much in zeroing in on the ideal combination for the World Cup. Question marks still remain over the bowling and the all-rounder's slot despite Bangar showing some promise. After all, it must not be forgotten that conditions in South Africa are very different. The pitches there are less likely to favour the batsmen and it is batting after all that is our trump card. The bowlers will no doubt do better in the more helpful conditions but is it a match-winning line-up? I think we all know the answer to that one.