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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The fast track to No.1 in cricket

India's thumping win over England in the first ODI, with none of the fab four in the team, again underlines the fact that the emerging talent in India has the potential to take it to number one in all forms of the game. England is no push-over, considering it beat the number two side South Africa 4-0 before coming to India. The triumph in the tri-series Down Under, the conquering of Mendis in Lanka, and the awesome depth of talent on display Friday clearly show the ODI and T20 teams led by MS Dhoni are on a rapid trajectory to the top.

The same cannot be said of the Test team, despite its comprehensive victory over the number one side Australia in the series just concluded. It has to be remembered that it was only an injury to Anil Kumble that enabled the inclusion of Amit Mishra, whose five-wicket haul on debut in the first innings at Mohali helped India surge ahead of Australia in the series.

Apart from Kumble's bowling and captaincy, there were other glaring weaknesses in the Test team. It's easy to brush these weaknesses under the carpet when a team beats the world champions as thoroughly as India did. But that is precisely what can prevent India's climb to the No.1 spot in Test cricket. Let's take them one by one.

The middle order remained unreliable during the India-Australia series, although obviously not to the extent it failed in Sri Lanka. The pitches were easier, and the Aussies did not pick a quality spinner until the last Test. And yet, India was on the verge of losing the first Test in Bangalore until an improbable partnership between the bowlers Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan came to the rescue. Then at Mohali on the first day, three quick wickets in the second session had India floundering until Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and MS Dhoni took them to an imposing total. In Delhi, on a sleeping beauty of a pitch, India won the toss and almost squandered the advantage by losing two wickets in the first hour.

Finally, in Nagpur, at 166-6 in the second innings India was staring down the barrel until Dhoni and Bhajji took them to safety thanks to Ricky Ponting's decision not to use Shane Watson after tea in order to improve the over-rate and avoid a ban. In each of these cases, the collapse was triggered by the failure of the one-down batsman. Dravid's awful form meant that India invariably lost two or three quick wickets even after the openers had got them off to good starts against the new ball. Dravid has averaged less than 30 in the last four series: that's 14 Tests. He had his chance to announce his retirement along with Ganguly with whom he had started his career at Lord's. Now, in all fairness, he should be dropped because over the past year or two Ganguly's performance had in fact been better than Dravid's. In any case, with the available talent - Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Badrinath, Robin Uthappa, Murali Vijay - there is no reason to continue to wait and hope that Dravid comes out of his slump. He should be asked to try and do that in domestic cricket.

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