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India's jigsaw lacks more than missing pieces

Being knocked out of the Champions Trophy will not be futile if India carry back a few lessons

Sambit Bal in Johannesburg

September 30, 2009

Comments: 155 | Text size: A | A

Ishant Sharma was given a hard time by the Australian batsmen, Australia v India, ICC Champions Trophy, Group A, Centurion, September 28, 2009
Ishant Sharma's bowling form has taken a sharp turn for the worse © Getty Images
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Has there ever been a time when all Indian eyes - and minds - have been focused on a match featuring Pakistan even though the Indian team is playing elsewhere at the same time?

In fact the match between India and West Indies in Johannesburg became relevant only briefly, when Pakistan's bowlers were triggering a sensational Australian collapse 40 kilometres away in Centurion. Pakistan did the best they could but the fact that India's fortunes were hostage to the performance of another team summed up their story.

There should, however, be no tears and no excuses. This is the third of the last four world tournaments where India have failed to clear the first meaningful hurdle and, just as in the case of South Africa, their position on the ICC rankings table will be of no consequence unless they can bring their best game to the big ones. Dinara Safina has been the No. 1 women's tennis player for a year now but does anyone think of her as the best on the circuit?

In the end, justice was done. Australia hadn't lost a match in the tournament so far and, from where they were against India the other night, they would have felt the more aggrieved by the rain. At 234 for 4 in the 43rd over, they would have been the favourites.

There are reasons not to be too harsh on this Indian team for their performance in this tournament. They came here without two of their match-winners, and lost one more before the tournament started. Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh are big players and the hole their absence left was too huge to plug.

Also, they have gone out on the back of one loss. The short and sharp nature of the tournament wasn't kind to them, and questions will perhaps be asked about a format that knocks out a big team on account of one bad game. It was unfortunate that rain denied them the opportunity to redeem themselves and placed their destiny at the hands of other teams.

And the ICC Champions Trophy has always been that kind of tournament. Apart from 2006, when Australia won it, favourites have rarely gone the distance. Who would have put money on England and New Zealand going through to the semi-finals? All these factors must be taken in to consideration while assessing India's performance in this tournament.

None of them, though, should obscure the weaknesses, persistent for a while now but glaring in this tournament. India haven't looked good as a one-day team for some time though their recent record would suggest otherwise. The flaws were apparent in the one-day series in the West Indies, which they won, and in the recent tri-series in Sri Lanka which they won as well. Often it was their batting might that masked the shortcomings with the ball and in the field.

The numbers tell a story. In four of their last ten matches, India have conceded more than 300 runs, and were clearly on their way to another such total against Australia the other night. To be fair, not too many bowlers have come away from these Centurion pitches with their dignity intact. The home team conceded over 300 twice, as did England. And, but for crucial mistakes from their batsmen, India would have run Pakistan close.

Sometimes, though, you can bowl at your best and still go for runs. Ashish Nehra apart, the Indian bowlers served up a series of short, wayward balls. RP Singh had no control against Pakistan, and Ishant Sharma delivered two tight spells but ruined it with some shockers on either side. Against Pakistan, he was instrumental in getting Shoaib Malik going with three trashy long hops in one over.

Against Australia, who had been kept tentative and honest by a zippy Nehra and a mildly wobbling Praveen Kumar, he provided the perfect release with an over that featured two fours and a six. It also contained a wide. In the course of one over, Australia jumped from a nervous 23 for 1 after eight overs to a comfortable 39 after nine. From there on, India couldn't find a way back.

In Australia a year and a half ago, Ishant was the world's hottest fast bowler. He made Ricky Ponting look ordinary, he hustled Mathew Hayden, climbed all over Michael Clarke and, along with Praveen Kumar, was responsible for India winning the CB Series. With Zaheer Khan back and willing to lead the quick bowlers, it seemed then India were about to enter a golden period in pace bowling, because on the sidelines lurked the likes of RP Singh, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel.

A year later, in the absence of Zaheer, India's ODI attack looks orphaned. It must be asked why most Indian bowlers, young and hopefully willing, have actually regressed. Ishant is the most debilitating personification of what has gone wrong with the lot. He has lost not only his pace but apparently his sense of length and line too. Since the CB series, where he took 14 wickets while conceding only 4.58 runs per over, his economy-rate is more than six runs an over and he has routinely been taken for more than seven.

Equally dispiriting has been the performance of Harbhajan Singh. He has continued to be a conundrum. On the basis of his experience and reputation, he is the leader of this Indian attack. Occasionally, like in the tri-series final against Sri Lanka, he has sparkled. On many occasions, he has been tight and adequate. Yet after so many years he has still not become the bankable match-turner that his team will expect him to be.

Against Pakistan he was outbowled not only by the impressive Saeed Ajmal and the magnificently matured Shahid Afridi but even by Yusuf Pathan. And the Australians, once putty in his hands, milked him with ease. On the basis of how he bowled against Australia, Amit Mishra can expect to be picked ahead of him.

India will be stronger when Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer return but they have a fundamental problem in this form of the game for which no credible answers are available. No great one-day team has been complete without allrounders and India haven't found one since the fall of Irfan Pathan. They have tried making use of the bowling abilty of their batsmen, and tried to make do with Yusuf. But he has shown little evidence of being able to do the job at No. 7 and, while playing five bowlers is welcome, it leaves the team dangerously unbalanced, and without insurance against a batting collapse.

Being knocked out of the Champions Trophy is a setback, not a disaster, and it would not be futile if India carry back a few lessons.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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Posted by arup_g on (October 6, 2009, 9:58 GMT)

Dhoni did not look bothered about the tournament and hence neither did the Indian team. Yes Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer are world class players but when India are a country that continuously win under 19 and under 21 tournaments, and have created the IPL which has developed so many good players, why is there a need to be scared when we lose big players? Why wasn't the like of S. Badrinath picked who has scored heavily year upon year. Why was Kohli, fair be it, a good young talent, picked considering he has no experience and doesn't yet have the temperament for the big stage. India's bowlers looked tired and weary except for Nehra. RP Singh, Sharma and Kumar lacked any consistency in line and length and looked nothing like the lethal bowling line up they were a year ago. Harbhajan did not look bothered about the competition at all. Whatever may have happened in the two big tournaments of 2009, India had a brilliant year in test and ODI's, so not all is lost.

Posted by cricket_wins on (October 5, 2009, 5:17 GMT)

I think the grave Indian mistake is to never look at "consistency" as a virtue of a successful team. The think-tank (irrespective of the constantly changing constituents) has always made a big deal of "reaching the top" or "defining roles" for players. There has, in my extremely humble opinion, NEVER been a clear thought process on defining "staying at the top" as a constant goal and trying to achieve it. Every one would raise issues about this being too critical a view in a losing time, but I think this view is applicable even when India win. They never win consistently.

Posted by Avinash__ on (October 4, 2009, 1:18 GMT)

Dhoni should read this what NZ caption Said . "It's about leading by the performance," he said. "My team will follow if I perform."

Posted by AvidCricFan on (October 3, 2009, 12:17 GMT)

It is very likely that India would have lost against Australia. They were in no certain winning position. So lets not use the washed out game as an excuse. The real problem with Indian team is selection, attitude and injuries. Why are we persisting with non-performers like RP Singh, Yusuf, Karthik? RP has been around for 4-5 years and I have hardly seen him in form. It is not his form. He is just not a bowler for the highest class of the game. Yusuf's role is that of batting allrounder and Karthik as a basmen. Inspite having played over 30 ODIs they average meagre under 25 runs. Both needs to shown door for this verson of game. Now fielding lapses are pure attitude and commitment problems of player. Our players revolt agaist demanding coach. So here comes in Kristen who is very lax on players. The onfield performance reflects the attitude.

Posted by nithinmohanan on (October 3, 2009, 11:48 GMT)

Time for Ishant Sharma to take a break.....He needs to relearn the trade of bowling quick. What better place than Feroz Shah Kotla nets....... May be time to test Sreeshanth and Agarkar another chance. Hi Time for Venketash Prasad to go back to Karnataka and test out his coaching skills on local Bangaloreans...India needs a break from his services.......A new coach who has bowled quicky some time in his career would do..say some one like Javagal Srinath or Wasim Akram....or even Jeff Thomson.......

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Posted by Desh-Bhagat on (October 3, 2009, 10:15 GMT)

India is substandard team, there is not a single indian player maybe with the exception of Yuraj who would be picked by any other team.

Posted by Joby_George on (October 3, 2009, 5:11 GMT)

Indian media praises Dhoni and his captaincy after a series win, and this media will put him down after a failure. Its not sacking Dhoni or changing captains, give him time, he is only 28. All these time, my question to the selectors is where is Irfan pathan? have you got a better all rounder than him in india at present?. What is going wrong with his selection. Bring back Rohit sharma, he is such a class player.Dravids comeback has given a strong backbone to indian batting. Drop ishant, RP and harbhajan and bring back sreesanth and piyush chawla.

Posted by sharma_paaji on (October 2, 2009, 14:42 GMT)

(cont....) I really hope Dhoni & Srikhant can step up to work out a solution to handle their pool of players properly in the long term instead of just a series by series or tourney by tourney basis and really fight for it with higher BCCI authorities if required. Their needs to be a cap introduced on "Grade A" players in the number of matches they can play in when it comes to meaningless ODI's & IPL as long as they are contracted to their national board. It is the only way top notch bowlers can develop in the long term & Grade A legs can stay fresh & up for the big tourneys & test series with real hunger. Imean if the novelty wears off for us fans then imagine the players? I wish the ICC would also introduce a cap on these bilateral ODI series & matches per tour with each team allowed a max of 3 icon test series per cycle ,3 ODI's per TEST tour,3 T20's & abolish triangulars & all tours of only ODIs/T20s. The ODIs played should also count towards a greater reward (cont...)

Posted by sharma_paaji on (October 2, 2009, 14:27 GMT)

Dhoni is too smart a guy to let the lack of confident bowlers at his disposal & 3 key players being injured become excuses for the recent show in big tourneys. Though the lack of agression creeping into Dhoni's mindset as captain & his batting of late is of some concern. Anyways I refuse to blame the players for anything. There is a reason leadership has to answer for results in this world. With the respectable Mr. Srikant replacing Vengsarkar as head of selection committee, I had hoped for sensible planning which would take India to the next level. So, where is the bench strength? Settled batting order? Test cricket? Protection for young players who havent peaked yet from overkill of meaningless money making matches? Rohit, Gambhir, Ishant, Mishra & Raina are potentially great players & need to be handled very carefully & smartly. Who will fight the BCCI to fix the schedulling issues so the interests of national team are looked after? (cont...)

Posted by Maximus_92 on (October 2, 2009, 12:53 GMT)

India team has always been over rated mainly owing to their hyper media. Their batsmen dominate the ratings mainly because they play most of their cricket on flat surfaces. As any professional test cricketer would tell you, the true test of any successful team is to get 20 wickets in a test match. This is what ultimately constitutes a great team. IPL or no IPL, India with even a billion plus population, fails to produce that kind of bowling line up year after year. So, chill out Sambit and enjoy the rest of the CT.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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