October 25, 2000

Injury-hit India take on Zimbabwe in crucial encounter

The Indian team goes into its match against Zimbabwe at Sharjah on Thursday with a spate of injury worries. Rahul Dravid is out with what appears to be a broken finger. Vinod Kambli is nursing a forearm injury that could put him out of action. Anil Kumble, India's key bowler, did not play the last game because of a back strain. Although the influx of newcomers has infused the team with energy, a series of injuries is always a source of bother for captain and coach alike. The uncertainty of team composition makes it difficult to plan any strategy.

The wickets at Sharjah have played consistently well. Although the ball is not coming on to the bat as well as strokemakers would like, there has been little or no sign of lateral movement. With the ball doing nothing by way of swing, matters have been made doubly difficult for bowlers. Bowling his left arm medium pace, Zaheer Khan has emerged as the spearhead of the Indian attack. When given the new ball, he has responded by taking key wickets. In the last game against Zimbabwe, Zaheer Khan came back for his second spell towards the end of the innings when Zimbabwe were still in with a chance. His controlled aggression settled the matter in India's favour.

Apart from Zaheer Khan, the Indian bowling has looked short of international class. Venkatesh Prasad has varied his pace, but never threatened to run through the opposition batting. Ajit Agarkar who spent a long spell out of cricket with an injury looks distinctly off colour - unable to generate either the nip off the wicket that earned him so many wickets, or the reverse swing that made him a force to reckon with at the end of the innings. Although calling him a trundler would be harsh, it will be a mantle he will inherit if he does not lift his game soon. Sunil Joshi, who was not picked in earlier matches, got his opportunity when Kumble was injured. Bowling with good control, Joshi might just have done enough to retain his place.

The fifth bowler's slot has been up for grabs for many a series now. Sachin Tendulkar's golden arm is proving useful when a partnership needs to be broken. However, Sourav Ganguly has sometimes kept him on for one over too many and that has proved costly. In contrast, the captain has underbowled medium pacer Robin Singh. In the recently concluded ICC KnockOut, Robin Singh bowled efficiently and looked sharp in the key match against Australia.

The unexpected openings in the batting order could forge some interesting partnerships. Tamil Nadu southpaw Sridharan Sriram might find himself in his second One Day International - as an opener. Then again, Ganguly could go back to the top of the order and this would free up a spot in the middle order. Hemang Badani, who has had to scuttle across the outfield, either as a substitute fielder or as a drinks carrier, might get a look in. And there's Rahul Dravid's replacement Mohammed Kaif to contend with. The young man might just have to be content with a desert safari and a visit to the Gold Souk.

If Ganguly's comments are anything to go by, the crux of the issue is the opening slot. He believes, rightly so, that the position is a specialist one. The think tank has revealed that a toss up between Ganguly and Sriram will decide the matter.

Given Zimbabwe's relative strengths and weaknesses, India would do well to go into the match with a side that has enough slow bowlers. This would serve a dual purpose, that of curtailing the run rate and of keeping the pressure on the batsmen.