When less can be more
The only smidgeon of hope that India can take from the Rose Bowl roasting, when their worst met England's best, is that they were still in the game at the halfway stage. So glaring was the fifth-bowling option, so sloppy was their outfielding that the Southampton security service might be tempted to investigate how England managed just a meagre 288. Had Australia been the opponents, 350 might have been par for the course.
Nobody is saying 288 is peanuts. But we have come to expect India conceding around 30 runs in the field and know that they need to make up with the bat. With four specialist bowlers and a fielding unit that fell apart, the talk at the dinner table could have been, "Twenty runs for the fifth bowler, thirty for this trashy fielding. So effectively we've kept them down to 238. Let's make it up with the bat and have a good night's sleep."
A quick stats check before walking out to bat would have boosted their morale. India have chased 288-plus targets on eight occasions. The latest instance, when they in fact hunted down 289 with ease, was against the same opponents at Indore last year. With seven batsmen and two support acts you would have expected them to at least get close.
The problem is not as much with the batsmen's capabilities as it is with the order in which they walk in. Whatever happened to that tried and trusted theory of your best batsman coming in at No. 3? Australia go with Ricky Ponting in that position, Sri Lanka usually stick with Kumar Sangakkara, South Africa mostly rely on Jacques Kallis and the rest have someone who they would want to stay out there for long and dominate and attack. India need to stop sending Gautam Gambhir in at such a pivotal position.
Either he opens, with Sourav Ganguly dropping down to No. 3, or he sits out with either Yuvraj Singh or Rahul Dravid taking that position. If India are really intent on gambling on their No. 3, then the exciting Robin Uthappa might make a better choice. At least he is a hit-or-miss kind of batsman, unlike Gambhir who has a tendency to hang in there, struggle for runs, see the pressure build, and then give it away. It is not easy batting out there but someone needs to go in and get a move on.
The problem over No. 3 is nothing compared to the muddle around No. 7. Since the time Robin Singh stowed away his kit-bag, that spot has been largely vacant. Mohammad Kaif filled the void briefly but he was soon shuffled around too often before he finally found himself out of the side. Suresh Raina was picked out as India's next great No. 7 before everyone realised he was too young for such a vital job. Dinesh Karthik is the latest to be tried but the first question India must ask themselves is: do we need seven specialist batsmen?
The lack of an allrounder is obviously a major handicap but what stops India from reposing their faith in six batsmen? Would it be too much to demand a few handy scores from Piyush Chawla? One gets the feeling that Chawla is being underused here. A batsman with seven first-class half-centuries, good at rotating the strike, cannot come out as low as No. 8. Chawla may not have the batting capabilities of an Irfan Pathan but he, Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar (India's fifth bowling option) need to combine their all-round talents.
The longer India play four bowlers, the more chance that either Zaheer Khan or RP Singh get injured. Dravid himself felt that there was only so much blame one could place on the bowlers and that it was the batsmen who needed to show some steel. It may sound ridiculous after their batting collapsed so badly but India need to take the bold step of playing five bowlers. The top-order batsmen got away with not making a hundred in the Test series but it is high time they came to the party. In this case, less might lead to more.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo