In-form Pathan 'critical to team balance' - Dravid

With the four-match series against the West Indies winding to a close, India are stuck with more questions than answers. While it would be over the top to say they are in disarray, the Indian team certainly needs to clear the question marks hanging over certain key players in the lead-up to the World Cup.

The most important, perhaps, is Irfan Pathan, who had, through his ability to score runs both at the top of the innings and later on, given the team the option of going light on the batting and playing the extra bowler. But, with his bowling falling away to the extent that he lost his place in the team, all talk of balance seems a bit of a luxury.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of the final one-dayer against West Indies, where Pathan is set to return to the side on the back of seven wickets in his last Ranji Trophy match, Rahul Dravid took the safety-first option when asked about him. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating," said Dravid. "When Irfan goes out there and plays a few games and performs, only then will we know. I'm just looking forward to him playing again. Him bowling well and performing well - those are important words - are critical to the balance of the team so we hope that he'll do just that." Pathan's batting form has been on a steady rise, so there's no real concern there. If his bowling comes through then that's one less headache India have.

Sreesanth's meteoric rise in Test cricket has, intriguingly, had little to do with his fortunes in the one-day game. His performances in Tests, both in West Indies and in South Africa, were forceful and filled with purpose, sometimes even inspirational, but he has bled runs in ODIs. He's the kind of bowler who you want to be able to call up at any time, but he's by no means a certainty to make the cut for the World Cup just yet.

"Sree's a young bowler and is competing for a spot in the side as anyone is. He's finding out it's not that easy to bowl on Indian wickets. He's got to keep learning and improving. That's part of what it is to be a young cricketer. We've got to be patient with some of our young cricketers. It can be hard to bring on and develop a young player here in India because of the expectancy of immediate results," said Dravid. "That doesn't always happen, especially with the difference between domestic and international cricket being a big one. You look at some of the other teams - Marlon Samuels has been doing well but they've given him so much time and been patient with him. That's something we have to learn."

The reason why most teams want to play three fast bowlers is the Power Plays. But with the experience of our two main spinners they might be able to do that job and that could be quite critical

The other massive cause for concern is Munaf Patel. Not long ago he was leading the pack of young fast bowlers coming through. Now, after the sorry episode of South Africa, where he sat out virtually the whole series only to return for the final Test well below full fitness and embarrass himself, the road back may not be so easy. Munaf's honesty in revealing the extent of his injury was under question, and no captain will stick his neck out for a player who he believes has been economical with the truth. Dravid, though, had encouraging words for Munaf. "Just watching Munaf in the nets today, even though he was not in the squad, was good. The way he was running in and bowling ..." he said. "We needed to find out whether he had come back fit and from what I've seen in the nets that's heartening."

Dravid, who was batting against Munaf and even otherwise watching him from close quarters in the nets, may have seen something that was not obviously evident. But from thirty feet away it certainly did not look like Munaf was near full fitness. He was not steaming in, appeared to be bowling well within himself - almost as though he feared a relapse - and did not extract that trademark rearing bounce. But with only four games against Sri Lanka left before the World Cup, Munaf will certainly get a look in. Whether he goes on to book himself a place for the big tournament remains to be seen.

With so many doubts over the fast bowlers, the role of the spinners becomes far more critical and Dravid agreed when this was put to him. "The experience of Anil [Kumble] and Harbhajan might give us the option of using them even in the Power Plays," he said. "If we've got four experienced bowlers and Anil and Harbhajan can do a job for us in the twenty overs of the Power Plays it may even give us the option of playing an extra batsman.

"The reason why most teams want to play three fast bowlers is the Power Plays. But with the experience of our two main spinners they might be able to do that job and that could be quite critical." It might not only be critical to India's fortunes, but also to Ramesh Powar's, for as someone who's performances are seldom mentioned, he could well find himself a place in the squad ahead of one of the quick men.