India v New Zealand, TVS Cup, Game 6, Cuttack November 6, 2003

Comfort zone bodes ill

Mohammad Kaif: a half-century at last, but what about the strike rate?

After this match, you wonder why Stephen Fleming spent so much time whining like an old shrew about the playing conditions. The organisers seem to have done him, and Ricky Ponting, a favour, since India seem determined to prove that they can neither set a target or chase under lights. Craig McMillan was magnificent, but much of the sheen was taken away from his display by the ineptitude of the Indian attack.

Many in the capacity crowd were streaming toward the exit long before the 40th over of the New Zealand innings. Who could blame them? When your three-pronged spin attack is hopelessly shown up by the one outsider - Daniel Vettori - you know all's not well with team India. Were it not for Zaheer Khan's little blitz with the bat, this would have been a rout.

Next time some idiot mentions the NatWest Trophy run chase, do yourself a favour. Catch the offender by the throat and squeeze firmly till he turns India-blue in the face. Let go only once he chokes out an apology.

Yes, it was a gripping match, and a fine run-chase, but nothing more than that. The opposition, lest the cheerleaders among us forget, was England, a mid-table team that couldn't even make the Super Six at the last two World Cups. Can you imagine the Australians releasing commemorative DVDs after beating such a piss-poor side?

In a way, the hysteria that followed the NatWest triumph, and the run to the World Cup final, symbolised everything that is rotten about Indian cricket, primarily our easily satiated appetite. It should surprise no one that John Wright came out and told Wisden Asia Cricket, "I've been worried about the comfort zone after the World Cup ... If we are to go on and play competitively in Australia we've got to lift our performance several levels as a unit."

At least one man's sane enough to recognise that, because if you watched this team, you'd be forgiven for thinking that more than half of them had decided that they could ride the gravy train for a couple more years on the basis of half a dozen good games.

Take a look at Mohammad Kaif, supposedly India's answer to Jonty Rhodes, Michael Bevan and the other whippets of the world. In his first 19 appearances for India, Kaif made 563 runs at 56.3, and a healthy strike rate of 82.43 per 100 balls. But after that brilliant 87 not out at Lord's, and the 111* in Colombo as India avoided embarrassment against Zimbabwe in the ICC Knockout Trophy, he has made 520 runs at 20 in his last 37 matches (31 innings). On 12 of those occasions, he batted as high as No. 4, so it's not as though he didn't get a chance to bed in.

Much is made of Kaif's fielding, and rightly so, but even if he was Colin Bland cloned, his figures don't stand up to scrutiny. In the same period, Yuvraj Singh has made a century and six 50s, at an average of 33.54 (strike rate 79.78). The much-maligned VVS Laxman, the World Cup squad's sacrificial lamb and the name bandied about for the chop each time India do badly, has played just 15 matches in that period. He's managed a century, and three 50s, at an average of 37.5, and a strike rate of 72.41, comparable with Michael Bevan (74.12) and several other fine one-day batsmen.

Kaif's strike rate since those Colombo heroics is a dismal 65. Today, he laboured 108 balls for his 64, playing out 65 dot balls. No matter how slow and low the pitch, how do you explain that from someone with a reputation for ferret-like running? Rhodes, whose athletic approach to the game was most similar to Kaif's, scored at 80.91, and averaged 35.11. The next time someone comes up with a "Laxman for the chop" slogan, you know exactly where to knee them, and where to point fingers.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.