Inconsistent India need to make amends

For a side aspiring to be number one, here's a damning piece of statistic: India have not won two consecutive Tests in the last three years.
After beating Sri Lanka 2-0 at home in 2005, India's three overseas tours against the top three sides in the world resulted in three Test wins. In South Africa two years ago, they came into the Test series on the back of a 4-0 one-day drubbing and memorably won the first match in Johannesburg. Then they nosedived, losing by 174 runs and five wickets respectively, to squander the series.

In England last summer, they hung on by the skin of their teeth at Lord's thanks to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a bit of rain, and an umpiring error from Steve Bucknor, and improved to take the series 1-0. In Australia, they were drubbed at the MCG, improved significantly in Sydney in a game marred by controversy, and then famously won in Perth.

There are two obvious issues. The first is India's reliance on five ageing players and Virender Sehwag. You can argue the same about Australia but the fact is they have unearthed fresher faces like Shaun Marsh and Phil Jaques, who has already looked the part at Test level. Not so for India, where the likes of S Badrinath, a contemporary of Jaques, score runs by the bucketful at the first-class level without any recognition. Yuvraj Singh has been around since 2000 but hasn't cemented his place in Tests, while Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma are untried.

As Anil Kumble pointed out after yesterday's loss, certain players coming into this series have had two-month breaks. And the effect of that, according to Kumble, depends on the individual. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly struggled at the SSC. A player like VVS Laxman has only played Tests for the last few years and no one-day cricket, yet he looked far more stable against Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajanth Mendis. As far as this series is concerned, India may want to consider having Laxman at No. 3 given his form.

Statistically, there is little difference between Laxman's batting at No. 3 and No. 6. Since his 281 at Eden Gardens in 2001, he averages just under 50 at both positions and has scored four hundreds apiece. His first-innings 56 at the SSC featured some gorgeous shots, and he appeared, Sachin Tendulkar apart, the only batsman comfortable against Sri Lanka's unorthodox spin attack. When someone bats as well as Laxman did on a pitch favouring spin, it makes sense to send him in early. He scored a crucial hundred against Sri Lanka in 2005, batting at No. 3 on a turner in Ahmedabad.

Kumble denied charges that the batting could have failed because of technical reasons. "We have people who have played Test cricket for more than 15 or 20 years," he said. "You can't find a more experienced batting line-up."

This may be true, but adjustments need to be made ahead of the Galle Test. The last match in which Laxman batted at No. 3, he scored a sublime century against Australia in Sydney. It may not be a bad idea to have him swap places with Dravid. Those who suggest that Dravid batting lower down the order would throw his balance out of whack are underestimating a batsman with 10,000 Test runs, and one who has arguably looked the most settled in Test cricket among his team-mates. India need to focus on at least drawing this series, and if promoting Laxman is crucial, that's the way they need to go.

The second issue is India's bowling. When Australia toured Sri Lanka in 2004, Shane Warne picked up 27 wickets on his return from a drugs ban. The pressure from the other end, where Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz gave little away, was instrumental in Australia's series win. Neither pace bowler picked up too many wickets, but their accuracy strangled Sri Lanka and Warne reaped the benefits. Murali took 26 in the three Tests but the lack of back up told as Darren Lehman and Damien Martyn took full toll of the other bowlers. Now with Mendis at one end, Murali is more potent than ever.
"Everyone talks about the need to be positive against spinners but that's easier said than done when picking them in real time," an Indian batsman told Cricinfo. "Only then can you think about being positive. It's a fact that India just don't play enough quality spin bowling. People talk about Monty [Panesar] and [Daniel] Vettori - and they are fine spinners - but at the end of the day they are orthodox bowlers.

"Mendis and Murali are unorthodox, and bowling in tandem they exert immense pressure from both ends. Previously, in Sri Lanka, you could try and score runs at the other end but now we have to adapt a new strategy because they have the other guy asking just as many questions."

India don't have such options. Kumble has indeed been unimpressive in his past two series. His 20 wickets in Australia clearly made him weary, but look at the support he had. Harbhajan Singh took eight wickets at 61.25 - and struck once every 18 overs; hardly the stuff that's going to help you take 20 wickets in a Test. Harbhajan has been around for exactly ten years now, and such is his predicament. Who is going to take wickets for India?

India used to thrive on producing quality spin bowlers, but the paucity of resources is worrying . Piyush Chawla and Pragyan Ojha don't look ready for Test cricket and the only other name that comes to mind is Amit Mishra.

In the long run there are plenty of issues for India, but first they have to pick themselves up for Galle. It is just one loss and they have the batting power to come back, as tough as conditions there may be. How they cope there may prove decisive going forward.