India v Australia, Videocon Cup, Amstelveen August 23, 2004

Ain't broke, but needs tuning



The Australian team brings out the best in the Indians, but the Indians need to bring out their best more often © Getty Images

It will worry India-watchers that the team's A game has been on display only twice in the eight one-day international matches that they have played so far in this fledgling season. Both times, it was a case of a desperate situation requiring a desperate remedy. Against Sri Lanka in a second-phase encounter of the Asia Cup, they sneaked through by four runs, but there was no such fortune today as rain prevented pursuit of a challenging Australian total.

Those that were embarrassed by the meek capitulation against Pakistan two days ago would have been cheered by the response. There's something about this Australian team that brings out the fighting qualities in this Indian side, even though the head-to-head record remains heavily skewed. Perhaps it's the fact that there is nothing to lose. Against a Pakistan or a Sri Lanka, India expect to win, and that realisation brings with it its own pressure. Against Australia, with defeat the logical conclusion, you can give it your all without fearing over-the-top criticism or a public backlash.

The most encouraging sign for Sourav Ganguly with the Champions Trophy drawing ever closer was the form shown by Lakshmipathy Balaji. The old virtues of line, length and subtle movement, which made such an impression in Australia and Pakistan, were rediscovered after being mothballed in the close-season, and he has six wickets to show from two shortened games against sides unafraid to give the ball a good wallop.

And after a poor outing against Pakistan, Irfan Pathan also did well, one half of a fascinating duel with Matthew Hayden, who was constantly moving around, and outside, the crease in an attempt to unsettle the bowlers. Much to the relief of barge-dwellers on the canal, most of Hayden's meaty swipes connected only with damp air, unsurprising given that many of Australia's finest have been in hibernation in preparation for the challenges that lie ahead.

But even a 32-over affair couldn't dim the brilliance of Michael Clarke, who now has to be a dead cert for the tour of India. He carried on where he left off in the TVS Cup last year, negotiating India's slow bowlers with precise footwork and decisive strokeplay. He was as adept at driving inside-out over cover as he was at cutting the ball past point, and pulling past midwicket. Neither he nor Darren Lehmann appeared too discomfited on a pitch where the ball turned sharply, and it took two stunning catches to send them back to the pavilion.

If India do exit this tournament early, as seems likely now, they can at least take away the memories of Virender Sehwag's stunning leap at long-on to dismiss Clarke. Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif and Rohan Gavaskar were also lively, though too often, the effect of spectacular stops was marred by poor throws at the stumps.

As the team prepares for the English leg of this tour, though, it's impossible to overstate just how vital it is that they get the batting line-up right. Sehwag hasn't fired at the top for ages, while Yuvraj appears ill at ease against the soft turning ball late in the innings. There is also no natural No. 7, no Clarke or Andrew Symonds who can both innovate and belt the cover off the cricket ball. If India are to play the same first XI, surely it makes sense to let Yuvraj come in at No. 3, and keep Sehwag - for whom finding the boundary has never been an issue - and Ganguly for the final charge.

That, of course, would mean that VVS Laxman had to open with Sachin Tendulkar. With five one-day centuries this year alone, Laxman has earned the right to be considered part of the long-term plan, even if that means going back to the opener's job with which he began his international career.

The Indian machine isn't broke, but it needs plenty of fine-tuning. Sri Lanka and New Zealand have already left them behind since the last World Cup, and Pakistan - with 21 wins in their last 30 outings - have drawn abreast. New ideas, and perhaps a fresh face or two, are needed if the gains of the Wright-Ganguly era aren't to be wasted.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.