"When people score runs, it solves a lot of problems." Rahul Dravid's forthright assertion at the end of the opening game against West Indies at Nagpur summed up India's series, one which they began with several questions and ended with most answered. The margin of victory (3-1) conveys their dominance and it was mainly the shocking middle-order collapse at Chennai that prevented a clean sweep.
India returned from South Africa a destroyed one-day side and the home series offered a chance to get things back on track by finding answers to the various questions the team composition posed. We look at the crucial issues:
The openers: The opening combination was kaput - Sachin Tendulkar out of sorts, Virender Sehwag struggling and Wasim Jaffer not being able to make the cut - and that was having a knock-on effect on the middle order. All it required was some tweaking and fine-tuning and India were away. Sehwag was dropped, Tendulkar pushed down the order. Sourav Ganguly returned in fine style and the tyros who opened with him - Robin Uthappa and Gautam Gambhir - seized one chance apiece.
Gambhir's series was illustrative of his career - confidence at Nagpur, misjudgement, maybe even misfortune, at Cuttack, and sloppiness at Chennai. He could have eyed the reserve-opener slot for the World Cup but Sehwag's imminent return makes it an extremely long shot because Uthappa might just have upstaged him for that berth. His 41-ball 70 will be hard to match for its sheer impact, with crisply struck swats clattering into the boundary hoardings. The jury is still out on his technique -sophisticated slogger or adept thumper? - but this isn't the time for such philosophical questions.
Uthappa has amassed 854 runs in seven games in a bowler-dominated Ranji Trophy - significantly, three of his hundreds were on the first morning of games - and done enough, one might say, in the ODIs to deserve a spot. He needs to cash in on the starts he's got - in Chennai he gave it away when in the zone, in Vadodara he tried a cute glide to one that lifted from a good length - but he's an explosive talent and must be persisted with.
The middle order: India still don't know how well equipped they are in run-chases. Brian Lara chose to field on three occasions and Dravid decided to bat at Cuttack, the only venue where he won the toss. But Tendulkar shepherding in the middle order provides an element of calm. His hundred at Vadodara was a fine mix of strike-rotation and acceleration, giving India exactly what they missed over the last few months - consolidation followed by the final kick.
Word is that Virender Sehwag, likely to return for the Sri Lanka series, will bat in the middle order and, along with the impressive Dinesh Karthik and destructive Mahendra Singh Dhoni, provide the much-needed firepower at the death.
If Sehwag is indeed tried out in the middle order then he may have to compete with Dinesh Karthik for a place. Sehwag provides the offspin option but Karthik's agility, in a side that's loaded with weak fielders, will be impossible to ignore. And where does this leave Suresh Raina, who squandered his only chance at Chennai? India's ideal 12th man but whether fielding alone is enough for a spot remains to be seen.
The allrounder: This is one slot that doesn't seem to have any takers - Joginder Sharma muffed his chance at Cuttack, reckless with the bat and listless with the ball. Ramesh Powar, till recently a handy domestic allrounder, seized his chance with the ball, in his only opportunity at Cuttack, but his batting seems to have fallen away (and he doesn't have fielding to fall back on). He would anyway struggle to make the World Cup squad, with India almost set on picking two specialist spinners and the part-timers being slow bowlers as well. Irfan Pathan, lackluster in his only appearance at Vadodara, looks the ideal one to step into the No.7 void, provided he regains some sort of bowling rhythm.
Unanswered questions: What does one expect against Sri Lanka? The main question over the bowling is the choice between the erratic Sreesanth and the fragile Munaf Patel, with only one of them likely to be picked for the West Indies, and there's still a doubt over Pathan's rhythm. Yuvraj Singh hasn't done much with the bat since his return from injury and India will hope that the few remaining wrinkles are ironed over during the last lap of their World Cup preparations.
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