India v West Indies, 2nd ODI, Cuttack January 23, 2007

Middle-over muddle

Rahul Dravid: 'When you pick the experienced players you have to accept that the fielding is not going to be brilliant' © AFP

India's fine start to the one-day series, where they amassed 338 and held on for a 14-run win, shouldn't mask some of the problem areas. A key concern facing them, especially with the World Cup around the corner, is the middle overs - both in the batting and bowling departments.

Interestingly, the problems in both areas are interlinked. Added to that is a fielding malady where there aren't any easy solutions. The squad for the last two matches of the series is to be selected on January 25 and tomorrow's game becomes paramount for more than a few players.

In the absence of Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag, the bowling options are severely restricted. Suresh Raina doesn't offer much while Dinesh Karthik is a wicketkeeper. Raina has already been left out of tomorrow's clash, replaced with the genuine offspinner Ramesh Powar who is handy with the bat as well.

Powar has the flight and the guile to tease the batsmen but he's only been used sparingly, with Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble jostling for the sole spot. Kumble is expected to return for the last two matches and Powar will have to turn in a special performance tomorrow to retain his place. Ditto for Karthik, who might find it difficult to hold his place if Yuvraj or Sehwag returns.

The other concern is the batting in the middle overs. Mahendra Singh Dhoni muscled and Rahul Dravid innovated on Sunday, as 112 runs flowed in the last 10 over, but one shouldn't ignore the problems that India have had in that area recently. Is Joginder Sharma the answer to the vital allrounder's slot? We might get an early indication tomorrow in what promises to be a make-or-break game for him. He's had a great domestic season with both bat and ball but will he be able to bridge the vast gap between the first-class and international levels?

In case he isn't up to scratch, India would do well to fall back on Sehwag. Of course, of late Sehwag has been more vulnerable to phantoms in his psyche than demons on the pitch. But even during that miserable phase in South Africa, he managed a 50-ball 40, with six fours and a six, from the middle order. That pitch, at Cape Town, was taking some spin and that's what India are likely to encounter in the World Cup. And he can bowl. With Irfan Pathan still struggling to get back his bowling touch, Sehwag and Yuvraj, along with Tendulkar and Ganguly, could handle the allrounder's duties.

Compounding India's worries is their fielding. They dropped four catches in the first game and Dravid is, understandably, concerned. "We are not natural athletes, especially the senior guys," Dravid said. "So we have to find that balance between the younger and the senior guys and the seniors have to work on their fielding. We have to still try and get to as good a level as we can. There are some guys in this side who obviously cannot become brilliant. But we have to try and improve and obviously hold all our catches.

"We are working very hard on our fielding and we are looking to improving every day. But we need to find the balance between picking the youngsters and the experienced guys. When we pick a lot of youngsters, the criticism was that there are not enough experienced players, so when you pick the experienced players you have to accept that the fielding is not going to be brilliant. That's a fact and you just have to accept it. So we have to look at the pluses and the minuses and we have to get the right balance. That is a situation we are faced with and we have to deal with it."

India will grapple with all this and more as they head into the second one-dayer. They will be hoping that Cuttack provides them with some, if not all, of the answers.

Sriram Veera is editorial assistant of Cricinfo