August 14, 2011

Have India lost the Australia series already?

India have problems in every department, and it doesn't look like they'll be able to fix them in time for their year-end tour

India's performance against England has been abysmal but things could get worse before they get better. This disastrous tour has been a while in the making. The selectors' failure to address issues like an ageing batting line-up, a declining offspinner, and substandard fielding in the five-day game, has finally come home to roost.

The shrewdness of MS Dhoni's captaincy, the potency of Virender Sehwag's strokeplay, and the bowling of Zaheer Khan have all done a better job than spackle in covering up the Indian cracks. But like firemen on their sliding pole, the descent for India will be much quicker than their steady climb up the rankings was.

In all likelihood, India will be ranked No. 3 by the time they tour Australia. Following three heavy losses to England in the last Ashes series, Australia, it was assumed, would be easy pickings for India. I wouldn't be so sure.

With all Australia's problems - and there are many, with two reviews into poor performance running concurrently - they do have fast-bowling potential. If they get the bulk of their young fast bowlers fit for selection, Australia should field a decent pace attack. If they do, the Indian selectors, who have been negligent in their duty, could face their worst nightmare.

The selectors have been reluctant to show faith in some talented young Indian batsmen. Now they have to choose a team for Australia where there are serious questions about the ability of some to play short-pitched bowling. Further muddying the pool, India's better batsmen are now a liability in the field.

Most Australian pace bowlers grow up certain of one thing: they know how to bang the ball in short. Whether they do it wisely is another question, but judging by the performance of Suresh Raina, Abhinav Mukund and Yuvraj Singh in England, quantity will suffice if quality is in short supply.

The Indian selectors also have the added concern of the bowlers. In addition to batting and fielding weaknesses, the bowling attack is in tatters.

The Australians can struggle against good spin bowling. There have already been glimpses of this in Sri Lanka, although the Test batsmen are better equipped than those whose demise in the Twenty20 series was abject.

In the days when India didn't have much pace bowling they were still able to hold their heads high in Australia thanks to quality spinners. In 1967-68 and then 1977-78 India made Australia fight hard for every advantage through the skill of spinners like Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Bishan Bedi.

If India can get Zaheer fit and Ishant Sharma back to the form he displayed on his last tour of Australia, then with Mishra and another good spinner they could have their best balanced attack

Those times are a distant memory. Harbhajan Singh has for long been a better defensive bowler than an attacking weapon. And while Amit Mishra is a steady legspinner who has some value in Australia, he needs the faster bowlers taking early wickets to be effective.

If India can get Zaheer fit and Ishant Sharma back to the form he displayed on his last tour of Australia, then with Mishra and another good spinner they could have their best balanced attack.

The selectors have to decide whether Harbhajan is worth the gamble, and if they do, hope Dhoni can cajole or berate his offspinner into a return to his more attacking ways.

The biggest issue facing the Indian selectors is finding a batting line-up that can score enough runs in Australia to give the bowlers a chance. Of the experienced batsmen Sehwag is the best equipped to mount a counterattack that will set the Australians back on their heels. However, it's too much to expect Sehwag to play a lone hand, so Sachin Tendulkar may be forced to play a more proactive role in this ploy.

Of the younger batsmen Rohit Sharma is the most talented, and he also copes best with the short-pitched delivery. He should have been in the Test side a while back. It would be asking a lot of him to take on an aggressor's role in his first Test series and in a hostile environment.

Then comes the job of drastically improving the fielding. It's crucial to catch well and field athletically on the big grounds in Australia. With ageing batsmen and poor fielding bowlers, this will be a difficult selection puzzle.

The selectors have failed to confront the tough issues and now face a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation. If India slide quickly down the rankings, weaknesses off and on the field will have played their part.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist