A defining season for three players

A NEW season, a new flirtation with our national obsession, starts with the Challenger.

HARSHA BHOGLE

A NEW season, a new flirtation with our national obsession, starts with the Challenger. It is a peculiar tournament, striving for years to gain respectability but never quite attaining it, a me-vs-you rather than a my team-vs-your team kind of event. But given that there has been no cricket since April for most of the senior players, it will do for this year.

As the season is about to begin Venkatsai Laxman and Virender Sehwag have made unusual statements. While Sehwag would like to come down to the middle-order, Laxman wouldn't mind opening the innings! — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN.-

The more interesting early season event though will be the Irani Trophy. With all the top players available, it becomes the tournament it was meant to be, not the ritual it lapses into periodically. And I hope the national selectors use it to pick the best possible team, to create the most competitive cricket match. At times in the past, it has tended to become an occasion for granting favours but when you grant favours you only injure Indian cricket.

A full strength Rest of India versus Mumbai on a sporting deck at Chennai will be very nice. Mumbai with Tendulkar, Agarkar, Jaffer, Kambli, Salvi and Bahutule, three with a point to prove and one with a dream to chase, will be quite strong. The side opposite them should take no more than 10 minutes to pick. Sehwag, Bangar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Kaif, Patel, Kumble, Harbhajan, Zaheer and Nehra. You might want to put Gambhir, Kartik or Mishra and a new ball bowler from among those that went to England as stand-byes but I hope the selectors resist the temptation to try people out. India needs tough cricket and if people cannot earn a place in Rest of India, how will they earn a place in the national side?

For three of those players this is going to be a defining season. Sehwag, still young but now with a reputation to defend, Laxman, at 29, either on the threshold of his best cricket or knocking at the door that will take him back to first class cricket and Kumble, getting to 33, intent to prove that he has two or three years left in him at this level.

Two of those three have already made unusual statements and while this could be the result of having words forced into your mouth, they could haunt them for the season. Sehwag has said that he is essentially a middle-order batsman and that is where he would like to bat while Laxman, an unhappy opener, now says he wouldn't mind returning to the top of the order. Both statements tell you just how unsettled India's top order is. In fact, the opening slot is a bit like the budget deficit, we talk a lot about what to do with it but end up doing little. Convenience is far too strong an opponent for serious planning in our cricket sometimes.

It will be a surprise if India make a change to the opening pair for the first Test against New Zealand. On our pitches, and without real bite in the New Zealand attack, it would be a fair bet that they will do enough to retain their place. And Australia is no place to suddenly start a batting order shift. That might be needed as the series goes on but you cannot start with that thought in mind. And if Sehwag has to open in Australia, you can be sure that he will be reminded of the fact that he didn't want to!

His bigger problem though will be the short-pitched ball. Nobody likes it, in fact the critical question often is who dislikes it less. Sehwag will get a lot of it in Australia, certainly he will at Brisbane in the first Test, but if he can live with it, he will enjoy batting there since the ball comes on and the pitches are true. The pull shot will be a good friend to cultivate.

There are some who believe that Laxman, similarly blessed but a little more mellow in temperament, is past it. In essence, at 29 he should be approaching his peak as a batsman but in spite of a good year in 2002, he seems unsettled. The truth is that he hasn't played in the attacking style that is his hallmark. He has ground his runs out rather than lit up stadiums and that could well have originated from not being sure of his role at number six. It is a difficult position to bat at, especially if the tail is weak, and you are not sure of whether to attack or hold an end up.

Now he needs to sort his game out in his mind and that can only come with a dialogue with his coach and captain. Does he play in his free, attacking style, in which case he should bat at number 3 or 5 or should he reconcile to batting at number six in which case he needs to bat well with the tail? I suspect, by saying that he won't mind opening now, he is saying that given a choice between number two and six, he will take two. Sehwag and Laxman at the top of the order will set your hearts racing but number three might be on his toes with every ball!

Of the three I referred to, Kumble is the toughest and has made the most of his career. He must wonder if he is like a strong brand getting marginalised by a new wave of thought; a sturdy reliable telephone in a world moving towards cellphones. Ganguly wants to play three seamers outside India and for that to happen, he can only play one spinner. It becomes a straight pick and I will be surprised if he doesn't mount a strong challenge on Ganguly's current preference. That is how it should be even though the feeling around the world is that Kumble is like a solid best-seller, everyone has read him. I wouldn't write him off and I wouldn't like to be a New Zealand batsman standing in the way of his resolve on his favourite pitches.