March 10, 2008

Rotation comes round again

Having more or less separate teams for Tests and ODIs is working well for India - but not for too many other teams, oddly enough

Dhoni and Tendulkar are the only two players in India's top seven who play in both Test and ODI teams © AFP

Australia have lost another CB Series final and their captain is talking of player exhaustion. Somewhere, Steve Waugh is chuckling. About eight years ago, when player workload was not quite the hot topic it is today, Waugh copped flak for his "rotation policy" under which those who were part of Australia's Test side didn't play all ODIs. The middle order comprised specialists such as Andrew Symonds, Ian Harvey and Shane Lee.

Just when it seemed like yet another of Waugh's revolutionary ideas, South Africa and New Zealand arrived for a tri-series in early 2002. The more Australia rotated players, the more they lost to New Zealand. For the first time in six years, Australia didn't make the final. It marked the end of Waugh's ODI career, and since then, Australia under Ricky Ponting have preferred to be more circumspect about rotation as well. Apart from Nathan Bracken and James Hopes, the nine other Australians who played in the second CB Series final this year were part of the Test team as well. Brad Haddin, a pure ODI player till now, is set for a dual role in the wake of Adam Gilchrist's retirement.

The trend is probably related to Test cricket's heightened pace, which allows one-day batsmen to thrive at the Test level. Pitches have veered towards batsmen, run-rates have soared, and even those with susceptible techniques have found a way to dominate Test attacks.

Australia aren't alone. Daniel Vettori now captains New Zealand in both forms and the core of his side doesn't change much between the two. South Africa drafted in a few specialists for the one-dayers against Bangladesh, but come the big games, Graeme Smith still has to depend on AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini and himself to do well in both forms.

Mahela Jayawardene and Shoaib Malik face similar predicaments, Chris Gayle doesn't have too many options rotation-wise, and Bangladesh's core remains the same for both formats. Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood split the captaincy in England, but there again the core doesn't change: Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Collingwood are integral members, while Alastair Cook and Ryan Sidebottom have cemented their spots as well. In fact, in the recent Hamilton Test, Sidebottom outdid England's Test specialists, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Monty Panesar.

It's a curious situation. With Twenty20 spreading its wings, the time is ripe for rotation. Bits-and-pieces players have a chance to create a niche for themselves, while the more gritty, stodgy variety can concentrate on Tests. While there's a place for Michael Vandort and Ashwell Prince, there's also opportunity for Dimitri Mascarenhas and Dwayne Smith.

It's even more mystifying considering how serious a factor burnout is today. Since the start of 2007, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden (all regulars in Australia's Test line-up) have played 124 ODIs between them. In fact, seven of the top ten players who've played the most ODIs in this period have been integral members of their sides' Test teams as well.

India buck the trend
Which brings us to India. The three-month-long tour of Australia has taken its toll - four of their players could miss the Tests against South Africa - but the bench is currently in rude health. Not only do they have separate captains but, either by accident or design, each side has a totally different nucleus.

In the top seven, only Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni play both forms. The meat of the Test batting line-up includes Wasim Jaffer, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Rahul Dravid (apart from Tendulkar). Anil Kumble, the captain and spearhead, gets a good rest between Test series too.

With Twenty20 spreading its wings, the time is ripe for rotation. Bits-and-pieces players have a chance to create a niche for themselves, while the more gritty, stodgy variety can concentrate on Tests

India's CB Series win might have marked the end of three one-day careers (Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman) but it could also have extended their Test ambitions by a good year. The fact that Virender Sehwag isn't a permanent part of the ODI squad, or Yuvraj of the Test side, could be a blessing in disguise, allowing them more time to recoup.

There is a bit of overlap in the pace-bowling department but India are currently well placed to rotate even there. At full strength India's one-day options read: Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth, RP Singh, Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar. All except Praveen have shown they can step it up in Tests. The two Singhs, VRV and Pankaj, wait in the wings, while Pradeep Sangwan, the Under-19 World Cup-winning left-armer, and Sudeep Tyagi, a tall medium-pacer from Uttar Pradesh, have had impressive debut seasons. Amid such riches is L Balaji set to return.

India even have wicketkeeping bench-strength, unlike in the past. Dhoni, who has been on the road since May last year, will no doubt need a break at some point and Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel are stand-in options for him.

India now have about 25 players to choose from, a rare luxury. The team's schedule continues to be a hectic one - the Test series against South Africa is followed by the IPL, a tri-series in Bangladesh, the Asia Cup, and a tour of Sri Lanka. That both the Test and ODI sides have achieved some impressive successes lately should only prompt a more serious push towards a formalised rotation policy.

With the kind of money the IPL is dishing out, one could soon reach a dangerous situation where players are tempted to choose franchise over country. India, in particular, need to beware of such a situation, considering the gruelling schedules the players have to put up with. Since January last year, Dhoni has gone 11 Tests, 47 ODIs and a World Twenty20 Championship without a break. Few cricketers will have passed through so many airports without picking up a serious injury; now that he's still standing, it's time for a rest.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo