India v West Indies, DLF Cup, 5th match September 20, 2006

Some solace, but serious flaws remain

India's bowling was nearly immaculate, though their batting was anything but. © Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar was still a relative greenhorn in international cricket when India and West Indies met at Perth in a Benson & Hedges World Series match in December 1991. And though he did nothing with the bat, it was his dismissal of Anderson Cummins, caught by Mohammad Azharuddin at slip, that allowed India to escape with a tie after a formidable West Indian pace attack comprising Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose and Patrick Patterson had skittled them out for 126.

All these years later, his impact was just as immense, with a gritty 65 paving the way for this improbable victory. When India were 69 for 5 with only the tail to come, even 162 appeared to be a chimera. But with Harbhajan Singh knuckling down to block and biff a marvellous knock, Tendulkar could play shepherd, till the latest in a long line of bizarre dismissals. Batting was a struggle for the most part, with Dwayne Smith and Corey Collymore getting the ball to wobble alarmingly at medium pace, but the manner in which he kept up one end was further evidence of his consummate skill and a hammer-blow for those that would rather have opinion polls about whether his powers are on the wane. An admiring Brian Lara said later at the press conference: "I don't know if he has doubters in your country, but he certainly doesn't have one here."

The morale-boosting nature of this win shouldn't however mask the deeper problems that India face ahead of what is now a semi-final against Australia. The bowling, with Irfan Pathan removed from the fray, was nearly immaculate. The batting was anything but. The critics of the team management will conveniently point to experimentation as the root of all evil, forgetting the fact that the very same tactics fetched India 21 wins in 29 games in the 2005-06 season.

No tactical masterplan works unless it's implemented properly, and the vital gears in India's revitalised one-day machine have become unmeshed. Pathan is a prime example. Last season, he was simply outstanding, averaging 34.42 with the bat and taking 49 wickets at 19.63 in 25 games. But since boarding the flight to the Caribbean, the returns have dwindled to 88 runs at 14.66 and seven wickets at 33.28. When on song, he gives the side enviable balance and flexibility, but with him off-colour, the main battle-plan has had to be binned.

Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are other examples. They averaged 58.05 and 68 last season, but since May, the figures are a rather less imposing 30.5 and 19.17. Given the impact that both had in the catalogue of victories last season, expecting India to prevail when they misfire is akin to asking a boxer to get into the ring with one arm tied behind his back.

Without experimentation, there would also have been no Munaf Patel, Sreesanth or RP Singh, all of whom bowled magnificent spells in defence of a paltry target. All three beat the bat consistently, with Sreesanth bowling just about the quickest spell seen from an Indian since Ashish Nehra's heroics at the World Cup in 2003.

It shouldn't be forgotten that West Indies used this outing as an opportunity to give their out-of-sorts middle order a better chance to get used to the conditions. They didn't succeed, but the manner in which Lara stroked a gorgeous unbeaten 40 at the end indicated that they certainly won't be soft touches in the final, no matter who they face.

They can also take immense encouragement from the return of Collymore, and the bowling of Smith. But for Tendulkar's determination and a Munaf-Sreesanth-led riposte after the dinner break, their opening spells would have marked a sixth win on the bounce against India. For an Indian team that ended last season on such a high, that might have been one blow too many, even this early in the season.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo