August 23, 2011

A few urgent repairs

India need to take a long, hard look at themselves, starting with the bowling

India have suffered a thrashing at the hands of England and Indian cricket is currently in crisis mode - at least the fans and media are. What mode its management and the BCCI get into after the series is finished will be interesting to see, and obviously, critical to the team's future.

This is not the first time India have been embarrassed like this in international cricket, but it is the first in recent times, and that worries me a little. I'm concerned this defeat may be brushed off with "It happens sometimes", "You can't be winning all the time" and "How can the No. 1 side suddenly become a bad team over four weeks?" If that happens, there may not be any significant action taken after the tour, and with the three-Test West Indies home series coming up next, matters will be "resolved" automatically.

It is essential for the long-term healthy growth of Indian cricket that a question be raised: Did this Indian team have an off series in England, or are they going to find it increasingly difficult to take on the tougher challenges in Test cricket?

This series against England was grade A Test cricket, and the one that follows is grade B. India clearly should look to excel at the former, and that is how they will also be able to get their No. 1 status back.

Let me make it clear that we are talking specifically about Test cricket here, for we tend to make the common mistake of not looking at the three different brands of the international game differently. It is a trap even the selectors are guilty of falling into. Think of the differences between Rahul Dravid and Suresh Raina when you need to remind yourself of the difference between Test and limited-overs cricket.

My answer to that question, whether this Indian team has only stumbled and will quickly bounce back, is no. India's soft underbelly has been exposed in England - specifically, their reliance on one man to form a decent bowling attack to complement the batting.

India needs to declare an emergency as far as their bowling is concerned. They have to start by first accepting the hard fact that Zaheer Khan coming back to spearhead the bowling attack for any length of time seems unlikely now. If, like Dravid and Tendulkar, he gets a second wind, that will be a huge bonus, but to move forward without counting on that would be the sensible thing to do.

Praveen Kumar has been nothing short of a revelation, but to have a 70mph bowler with two months' Test cricket experience leading the attack in England showed the world how inadequate India's bowling was.

The only other bowler who seems to have the potential to take over from Zaheer is Ishant Sharma, but Ishant at this stage of his career needs someone like an Imran Khan to teach him how to put more balls in the areas where batsmen don't like them. For all his ability and attitude, Ishant is just not probing enough consistently enough to be a world-class seamer and leader of India's attack. Currently, though, he is the only one who seems to give India that hope, and that is why they need to take good care of him - though this is easier said than done.

I have been very disappointed with Sreesanth. After his performance during the South Africa tour I thought India had found a world-class bowler to complement Zaheer, but once again Sreesanth has shown that he can only provide occasional flashes of brilliance amid a lot of mediocre bowling. Maybe that mediocrity has a lot to do with his overall fitness. India cannot place faith in such players.

Munaf Patel belongs in the same category - of those not having enough promise for India to invest time in. It's time to look beyond these players, and while doing so, the think tank needs to give preference to bowlers who have some athleticism; that sort of bowler doesn't break down all that easily.

Did this Indian team have an off series in England, or are they just not good enough anymore to take on the tougher challenges in Test cricket?

The time has also come to prepare for life after Harbhajan Singh, and the West Indies series is a great opportunity to do just that. Play R Ashwin in all three Tests. Don't give him the feeling that he is only coming in for one game before the senior stalwart returns and takes his rightful place. That never gets the best out of a young talent.

Ashwin is considered a limited-overs specialist and many think he may not look as impressive in the longer form. To them I say: I have seen Ashwin trouble batsmen in limited-overs cricket when they are looking only to defend against him. Also, let's not forget that a few years ago we thought Virender Sehwag was a one-day specialist. It was the same with Praveen Kumar too.

If Ashwin fails to impress, Harbhajan can be brought back for the Australia tour, in which case he will hopefully be fired up, stung by being left out. A similar snub before an Australia tour worked wonders with Sehwag; maybe it will with Bhajji too.

Tackling the batting is more difficult. They have had a rare failure as a unit, so this one is a little complex. There is, however, one thing that you don't get to see well on television, and that is the overall energy of the team in the field. Even in defeat a No. 1 team has to look the part. Think Australia here. Having all these veterans in the field doesn't quite help India when the chips are down. VVS Laxman's lack of athleticism has been taunted, albeit discreetly, here in England. At some stage Indian cricket will have to set fitness standards in the field, and when they decide to do that people like Laxman, for all the value he brings with the bat, may find it difficult to carry on playing for India with just one skill.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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