September 30, 2009

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

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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