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No trial without error

For a team that notched up 18 wins out of the 24 games last season, India now head into the final lap of World Cup preparations without knowing their best XI

Not much time left but plenty of questions © Getty Images
Around this time last year, when Rahul Dravid was finally handed the captaincy, India's one-day side were anything but settled. Strangely, after a season that will forever be remembered as a glorious one for Indian cricket, India are back to square one. For a team that notched up 18 one-day wins in 24 matches, India now head into the final lap of World Cup preparations looking unsettled and confused. The batting order is far from settled and they don't know their best XI. It's not panic time yet, but it's time to address some questions.
But how did it come to this? On the face of it, the answer is simple. The batsmen haven't been good enough. The four players who helped India ride to glory last season - Dravid, Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni - have struggled. A batting line-up that managed 17 successful run-chases in a row faltered chasing 213. The reason they made a match of it was thanks to Dinesh Mongia, who wasn't even in the picture till recently.
It must be borne in mind India's golden run was on subcontinental pitches that allowed batsmen to get away with technical imperfections. At Kuala Lumpur, their batsmen were unravelled by the moving ball - first to Mitchell Johnson's skiddy left-armers, then to Dwayne Smith's innocuous right-arm slow-mediums, and finally to a combination of Brett Lee's steaming pace and Stuart Clark's discomforting accuracy. It's no secret that India's batsmen have always been uncomfortable against the moving ball and, barring drastic changes at the domestic level, it will remain so. Like teams have done in the past, one can only try to work around this problem.
The team-management decided to try out a few new tactics during the series. Obviously, they knew the risks involved - it's not as if they drew lots to decide who will bat where, not as if they didn't know about the World Cup being six months away. But trial seldom comes without error and unless the team is winning, one tends to see only the downside. Shuffling Virender Sehwag's batting position was the move that stumped most. He averages 31.75 overall and 34 when he opens but there's been a dip in the last two years, a period during which he averages a little over 28 with just one century. Also, India have recently struggled in the slog and Sehwag could provide an ideal launch option. So maybe it was a good move after all.
But let's not ignore the flipside. Were India in a position to sacrifice their best finisher? Over the last few years, Dravid has adjusted brilliantly to the No.5 position - whether repairing a top-order collapse, consolidating a start or erecting a skyscraper. He's mastered the subtleties of the one-day game and to expect Sehwag, in fact anyone, to execute a similar role is quite far-fetched. To complicate matters, Dravid's form dipped - he averages a meagre 11.2 the last seven times he's opened. So was the swap worth it?
Two selection conundrums stood out during the DLF Cup: Mohammad Kaif being left out for the final league match and Irfan Pathan missing out after spanking a half-century in the opening game. Despite phone number scores (8,5*,0,0,4,0,0,5) last season, Kaif was persisted with for the West Indies series. He repaid the faith by getting back his groove (three half-centuries in five games) but his place is far from assured.

Pathan and Dhoni hitting a lean patch has hurt India © Getty Images
Irfan's slide has been debilitating. India's purple patch coincided with his rise as a one-day allrounder and the moment he went off-colour, it skewed the balance of the side. He's no doubt a better batsman than a bowler at this stage and it's meant that India have to look at another fast-bowling option. At the moment, there's nobody who seems capable of replicating what Pathan did last season (averaging 35 with bat and 20.5 with ball) and whether to pick him or not will remain a quandary.
Many of the team's strategies can seem like humbug to the outside world but that's not their concern. What they need to ensure is that specific players involved in the strategy (or "processes") understand their individual and collective roles. If murmurs are to be believed, a couple of senior players have expressed their dissatisfaction over the endless permutations and combinations. The decision to drop Sreesanth from the Champions Trophy squad was surprising but the fact that he was not told about the reasons is quite shocking.
Last season, India knew what it took to become a formidable one-day side; the Caribbean tour taught them some lessons for the World Cup; and the latest series would have told them that Murphy's law (If anything can go wrong, it will) usually holds. Failing to hit the right notes in the Champions Trophy, as well as the South African sojourn that follows, will only heighten the belief that they were a bunch that peaked too early.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo