<
>

Dhoni in jeopardy as India ponder options

India's cricketers enjoyed a "rest" day today, warming down after their second tour game at Chelmsford, but one or two minds might have just been working overtime. Rahul Dravid and Co. would have wished for the two practice games to provide a few answers; instead there seem to be more questions on hand with three days to go until the first Test at Lord's.
Wasim Jaffer or Gautam Gambhir? VVS Laxman or Yuvraj Singh? Mahendra Singh Dhoni as wicketkeeper? The first two aren't new instances - Jaffer is prone to a string of failures while Laxman's spot is never certain. But what of Dhoni? In Bangladesh he kept his Test spot thanks to a Man-of-the-Series performance in the preceding one-dayers, but he's done little of note to be sure of a place here. One can point to his 76 at Chelmsford, or even his buccaneering 139 not out against Africa XI at Chennai, but the conditions were nowhere near as demanding as they will be at Lord's.

What's more worrying is Dhoni's decline behind the stumps. He was never a natural wicketkeeper, starting off as a football goalie, and it was mainly thanks to his persistence that he improved in that department. There was a period early in his career when he gave up batting for one whole year just to get better with the gloves. He showed considerable improvement last season but the fumbles have reappeared recently. He has struggled so far in the tour games, often parrying the ball rather than waiting for it, and his grassed chances off Andy Hodd and Robin Martin-Jenkins at Hove and Stuart Broad at Chelmsford, all straightforward ones at international level, would definitely get the team management thinking.

Making his job harder is Dinesh Karthik's presence in the team as a specialist batsman. Karthik is the more agile wicketkeeper and is better standing up to Anil Kumble's bouncy offerings. There will surely be a temptation to ask him to keep as well as bat. It would no doubt add to his burden - squatting all day before opening the batting can't be easy - but it would also allow the team a chance to play the extra batsman in Yuvraj.

India's batting is awesome on paper but, as was shown at Chelmsford, it just takes a persistent bowling attack to open up the cracks. The top order is weak, the middle is inconsistent and the tail is mostly redundant. Lord's is usually good to the batsmen and India's batting galacticos, as the Guardian newspaper called them, will need to stand up. If they need some expert advice about batting on the ground they just need to look around the dressing room and spot a man who managed three hundreds on the trot here.

For Dilip Vengsarkar, the current chairman of selectors, Lord's, where he cracked centuries in 1979, 1982 and 1986, was his backyard. He downplayed the achievement, when Cricinfo asked him about it, but explained why the ground was special.

"Every player has his favourite grounds. I've got four hundreds at the Feroz Shah Kotla but nobody remembers that. And they were against better teams - three against West Indies and one against Asif Iqbal's Pakistan. Everybody only talks about the three hundred at Lord's. Of course it was a great feeling. It's special playing at Lord's. Walking through the long room you have a heavy feeling in the heart. You see the honours board, the pictures on the wall, the packed atmosphere. It's electrifying. But once you hit the grass, it's just another ground."

Did he have to make any special adjustment to counter the famous Lord's slope? "Too much is made of the slope at Lord's," he said nonchalantly. "Every ground has some slope - go to Leeds you have a slope, at Chelmsford there's also a slope. You need to adjust to different conditions and the slope is just one part of it. It's not as tough to adjust as it's made out to be."

But which of the three hundreds will he most cherish? "I think the century in 1986 was my best. We won at Lord's for the first time and went on to win the series. The bowlers won the game for us - Chetan Sharma bowled superbly, Kapil Dev was equally good, Maninder Singh too. To finish on the winning side after making your third successive hundred was very satisfying."

India had never won a Lord's Test before 1986, they've yet to win one since. As much as he's proud of being part of that side, Vengsarkar will hope that India double that victory tally in the coming days.