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August 19, 2008
Injuries to Sachin Tendulkar, during the third Test, and Virender Sehwag, during training on the eve of the five-ODI series, have given India a major headache ahead of the remaining four matches - that of finding a solid opening combination.
Tendulkar's 13,245 runs and 38 centuries as opener is beyond compare, while Sehwag's ability to provide explosive starts and tackle Sri Lanka's spinners was paramount. With the BCCI deciding not to send a replacement for Sehwag - how this team could do with a Sourav Ganguly now - India are left with only one specialist opener in Gautam Gambhir.
India's predicament was obvious in game one. In 70 domestic limited-overs matches Subramaniam Badrinath has never opened, and so India felt they had no option but young Virat Kohli. It put a lot of pressure on Kohli, and it showed. Kohli has spent most of his domestic career in the middle order, but was preferred for this match because of his success in the recent Emerging Players Tournament in Australia. Yet it was extremely difficult for him to assume the responsibility of opening the innings. He didn't look the part in the warm-up match either.
The only others in the squad who have opened at the international level are Parthiv Patel (53 runs from four games in 2004,) and Irfan Pathan. In terms of team composition Pathan appears the best option; he is technically accomplished and can score quickly.
The first time he was sent in at No. 3, against Sri Lanka in Nagpur in 2005, Pathan hit 83 from 70 balls. He had further success against Pakistan in Peshawar and Kuala Lumpur. The thinking on those occasions was to try to utilise the early overs. In Sri Lanka once the ball becomes old and soft, it will not be easy to play shots - something that is particularly crucial in this series, given the Mendis-and-Murali threat which follows. Sending him up the order will take the pressure off the middle order. Maybe Pathan could even be asked to go after the new-ball bowlers, with a target of scoring around 100 in the first 12 overs.
The problem was not just at the top yesterday. What was disappointing was the irresponsible shots played. Gambhir played down the wrong line to the second ball of the match, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma threw away their wickets without even facing the spinners, while Yuvraj Singh left a gaping hole between bat and pad against Ajantha Mendis. Mahendra Singh Dhoni also fell attempting a cute cut.
If a few batsmen had chosen to dig deep, the script might have been different. A target of 200 would have been tough on this track. It seemed everyone was trying to do a Virender Sehwag, when what was needed was preservation. India's highest partnership was 37 between Rohit and Yuvraj, followed by the 29 that the last pair of Pragyan Ojha and Munaf Patel put on. Like Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma at the PSS, Harbhajan Singh, Ojha and Munaf batted time against the spinners.
Since India's premature elimination from the World Cup, this side has been in transition. Senior batsmen like Ganguly and Rahul Dravid - both members of the 10,000 club - have been dropped and Dhoni's method of experimenting has yielded both good results (the decision to play five bowlers at Hobart earlier this year keeping in mind ground conditions, entrusting Praveen Kumar with the new ball) and bad (playing the extra batsman in the Asia Cup final).
This is a motivated side with an inspirational leader. You can argue that too much self-analysis can obstruct the creativity of this youthful team. There is a feeling that India's one-day team is more likely to succeed because of the youth factor and the exuberance it brings. It may well succeed because of its inexperience.
In the past, Indian teams haven't been allowed enough leeway in testing times. There have been too many young players drafted in as lambs to the slaughter, with inadequate returns marring the blueprints. There is plenty of one-day cricket coming up and Dhoni and the selectors have identified this as the core group for the immediate future. The talent of the side is not in doubt, the preparation and applications is.
India are known to be slow starters in any series, and they have the ability to bounce back in the remaining matches. But some serious introspection is needed if India aim to leave Sri Lanka unscathed. They can start by thinking out of the box.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches
Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind