Top order blues and to spin or not to spin?
Rahul Dravid's got a bit of a job on his hands even before India's crucial match against West Indies gets under way - getting the right combination on the park. There's the pitch to consider and fortunately Ahmedabad's strips have played the best of the tournament. There's the dew factor to consider - something that barely came into effect in the early part of the tournament, but is now such an issue that the ICC has taken to spraying the outfield with APSA-80, a chemical used in the farming industry to counter excessive dew.
In normal circumstances India would prefer to play two spinners against the West Indies. Traditionally, the West Indies have been weaker against spin than pace, and though India have two offspinners, they are different bowlers in that Harbhajan Singh relies on bounce and sharp turn to beat batsmen while Ramesh Powar is slower through the air and uses variations in loop and flight to pick up his wickets. Ideally, India would like to play both of them, but not if they're going to be bowling with a ball that more closely resembles a cake of soap left on the floor of a shower stall too long.
There are two ways India can play this match, the first being the safe approach, leaving out Powar, playing Dinesh Mongia in his place, and in the event of having to bowl first in non-dew conditions, rely on Virender Sehwag, Mongia and Yuvraj Singh to make up the overs Powar would have sent down. To play both spinners would be a gamble, and the second approach would be to go in with one spinner less, but play the extra fast bowler, thereby strengthening the bowling, as you would do in conditions where it's difficult for a certain kind of bowler.
The problem India are faced with, though, is that their top order has performed so frustratingly badly of late, showing all the consistency of the Bombay Stock Exchange - bank on them and one day you feel like a million bucks, and the next you have nothing in hand. With this being the scenario, it's hard to see how anyone can confidently take a gamble on the team composition.
It has now been 18 months since Sehwag last scored an ODI hundred, and this is not something that can be ignored for much longer. Sure, he's a man that wins you matches off his own bat when he fires, but how often is good enough? Once in five matches? Once in ten? He now has seven hundreds from 158 matches, and although that's not the only indicator of when he's done enough to win a game, it's something he should be thinking about, even if others aren't.
Another cause for concern is Suresh Raina. His value on the field is undoubted, but in 31 games he has made 35 or more only seven times. Alarmingly, in 16 matches, that's more than half of all he's played, Raina has failed to make it to double figures. Yuvraj Singh, who had such a brilliant run last year, has struggled to get going this season, and this leaves the team banking heavily on the redoubtable Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
One of the serious problems has been that a team full of strokemakers has failed to adapt to different conditions they've come across. This pitch here is made for the strugglers, the grafters, not the banner-grabbing heroes. And quality players do adapt to different conditions, changing their game, making subtle adjustments, cutting out certain shots. The time has come for India's once vaunted and now much maligned middle order to do just that.
When asked about what he was telling some of his younger batsmen, who were more in the strokemaking mould, Dravid said, "I'm asking of them to enjoy the game. We spoke about it today. A lot of our young players and young cricketers should see these as opportunities, in tournaments like this, so close to the World Cup, in must-win games like this," he said. "I'm asking them to enjoy the pressure, the atmosphere. Obviously also to adjust to the condition. They've got to adjust and adapt to the demands. The good players, ones who are successful and consistent, adapt to anything.They don't go out and play in one particular way. That's a great challenge for lots of our young and experienced players and hopefully we can rise to that."
The one thing that will give India room to breathe is the fact that the West Indies are, if anything, more inconsistent than India. In the span of this tournament they've been bowled out for 80, and then a few days later gone on to beat Australia with some inspired, high-intensity one-day cricket. The cause for concern for the West Indians, though, is Brian Lara's fitness. He did not take the field after his controlled and calculated 71 that set up the win against Australia, due to back spasms. And India know just how heavily West Indies depend on Lara, and the others in their top order. "I think they rely heavily on one or two players to get them to the kind of scores they need," said Dravid. "We've shown like in Malaysia against them, if we get two or three of their key players out, we can put them under pressure. That's what we'll aim to do."
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo