FIVE MEN ON A MISSION

S. DINAKAR

THE memory lingers. It was a wind-swept day in Galle, the sun played hide and seek with the clouds... and a young square-jawed man, seeking to put more sunshine into his fledgling career, began his stint at the nets.

Dinesh Mongia begins another quest for a Test place.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The setting was enchanting, the awesome Galle Fort and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean providing a fascinating backdrop to the ground and the adjoining practice facility. Yet, the task ahead was demanding.

Indeed, a huge challenge awaited the Indian batting line-up sans the injured Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman in early August last year. Two middle-order slots were up for grabs and it promised to be an interesting race between Dinesh Mongia, Mohammed Kaif and Hemang Badani.

The Indian team-management was tight-lipped about the eleven and even as Mongia stroked the ball in the cage, he must have been a touch anxious about his own fate. The series opener beckoned, but would he figure in it?

In the event a look-in proved elusive... not just for the Galle Test, but during the entire three-match series. A crushing disappointment it was for this committed Punjab cricketer.

Both Badani and Kaif failed to grab their chances and there was a strong case for Mongia's inclusion for the third Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club Stadium. However, the think-tank decided against changes.

As the 24-year-old Dinesh Mongia begins another quest for a Test place, in the West Indies, his ability to fight back, through the sheer weight of performances, shines through. This cricketer just refuses to give up.

The southpaw, subsequent to the Sri Lanka series, found himself omitted from the Tests in South Africa, despite match-winning efforts in the Irani Trophy, where he notched up 125 and 90 not out for the Rest against Baroda.

Once again Mongia's resilience surfaced as he continued his relentless pursuit in domestic cricket - the left-hander now has 4001 runs from 59 first class games at 51.96, a mammoth 308 not out against Jammu and Kashmir being the highest. But then, he has had to strive harder than the others for recognition.

This year he enjoyed a fine run in the Challenger series, regained his spot in the Indian ODI team for the contests against England, kept his place, and then finished the home season on a high, rattling up an unbeaten 159 as opener, clinically dismantling the Zimbabwe attack in Guwahati.

Ajay Ratra, the 'keeper has a tough task ahead.-N. BALAJI

So impressive was Mongia - he was the Man of the Series too - that when the injured Virender Sehwag was not considered for the Caribbean-bound Test team, the selectors turned their attention to him.

The wise men got it right this time around, for Mongia has an ideal temperament for the longer variety of the game; he rarely gets ruffled, is willing to put his hand up during moments of crisis, and possesses a sound defense to back his shot-making skills. That he could pace an innings stood out even during the ODIs, a quality that should serve him well in the more testing world of Tests. Mongia's penchant for the lofted strokes, taking advantage of the field restrictions early on, gift of timing and a willingness to consolidate on the gains, suggest that he might have a long-term future as a ODI opener, with the think-tank grappling with the idea of having Tendulkar in the middle-order to ensure against a collapse.

Despite some early setbacks, his ODI record makes impressive reading: 527 runs in 15 innings, ave. 40.53, strike rate 82.25. And in the longer variety, Mongia would remember two knocks with relish - a strokeful hundred at Mohali in the mid-90s, countering the likes of Mkhaya Ntini and Nantie Hayward of South Africa 'A', and a well-made half-century for Board President's XI, against Australia in Delhi last year. Knocks at vital stages of his career.

Actually, even during the periods he couldn't break into the eleven, Mongia's work ethic caught the attention of the team-management. "He works hard at his game. I like his attitude," commented coach John Wright once, and it was difficult to disagree with him.

The fact Mongia was originally named the India 'A' skipper for the South African campaign suggests the selectors have taken note of his commitment and discipline apart from cricketing skills.

Comfortable against the pacemen - he is sound off the back-foot, can pull and cut with panache - Mongia uses his feet against the spinners, driving and lofting them. And on the field, he's a safe customer with a strong throwing arm.

Stiffer challenges await him though in what is going to be a long, hard cricket year for India. Mongia's ability to cope with the 'corridor' ball from the pacemen will come under scrutiny.

Like Mongia, Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer has a triple century in first class cricket - 314 at the expense of Sourashtra in only his second Ranji game. That was way back in 1995-96.

And yes, he too had to endure a welter of emotions ever since, though his talent has never been in doubt. Apart from being an innings builder with the ability to concentrate for long periods, Jaffer is a pleasing stroke-maker, especially on the on-side where he can find the gaps with ease.

Sanjay Bangar should be of immense use as an all-rounder.-V. V. KRISHNAN

The elegant Jaffer's willingness to shoulder responsibility, the hall-mark of a good opener, is evident from his 173 against North Zone in the Duleep Trophy final of 2000, an effort that saw him carrying his bat as well. And this year, Jaffer's rich vein of form in the Duleep Trophy has earned him an India recall.

He would for sure like to forget his two home Tests against South Africa in 2000, where his returns were just 46 runs from four innings. As Jaffer himself admits, he is a more mature cricketer now.

Despite Deep Dasgupta's adequate performance as Shiv Sundar Das' partner, Jaffer should be the first choice for the opening Test at Georgetown. India has to find a solid, regular opener to walk out with Das, and Jaffer could well be the man.

Importantly, he appears to possess the right temperament and attitude for big time cricket, and is not the kind to shy away from the challenges of taking on the fast bowlers on responsive surfaces away from home.

The 23-year-old Jaffer may be just two Tests old, yet there is a maturity about him when he is at the crease and his hunger for runs has to be admired; the Mumbai right-hander has 4248 runs from 57 first class matches at 53.77.

Actually, considering India's problems at the top of the order, a natural opener like Jaffer should have been in an Indian touring side long back; better late than never though.

A fine fielder as well, Jaffer is well worth persisting with, and deserves an extended run. As the saying goes - he could be a lambi race ka ghoda. At 29, Sanjay Bangar is not exactly young, yet he is a fresh face in the international scene and offers much hope to Indian cricket, desperately seeking a genuine all-rounder.

The unassuming Railways cricketer, ignored by the Mumbai selectors early on, has already provided more than a glimpse of his batting ability with a cultured hundred against the Zimbabweans in the Nagpur Test, playing according to the needs of the team. And his five-wicket innings haul for the Board President's XI against the visiting Englishmen at Hyderabad this season indicates he can strike with the ball as well.

In West Indies, Bangar might get some work to do with the older ball, given his ability to achieve reverse swing. The pitches in the West Indies have slowed down over the years, some of them are double paced, and Bangar can be the support seamer, much like South Africa's Lance Klusener, who sent down long spells of nagging off-cutters from a shortened run-up in the Caribbean last year, and was successful too. With the willow, Bangar, a level-headed customer, is extremely flexible, and can bat competently at the top of the order, in case of an emergency. Certainly an useful man to have on an important campaign.

Wasim Jaffer, a pleasing stroke-maker, has the temperament for big time cricket.-RAJEEV BHATT

If the wickets are going to be of dual pace and bounce, then the role of the man behind the stumps becomes even more crucial. Ajay Ratra has his job cut out.

Truth to tell, he is lucky to be India's first 'keeper for a five-Test away series; on performance and class, Nayan Mongia should have been in the Caribbean. As Mongia's understudy, he would have picked up quite a few things as well.

Yet, the selection bungle is hardly 21-year-old Ratra's fault. On the contrary, it represents a fine opportunity for the spunky Haryana lad to prove the doubters wrong. To start with, he has a huge advantage. Ratra cannot possibly be worse than Deep Dasgutpa, who should consider himself extremely fortunate to figure in the squad. Dasgupta's wicketkeeping was shocking in the home Tests and some inherent technical shortcomings suggest he is never going to be comfortable with the big gloves; with the bat, he has the temperament, if not flair and wisely plays within his limitations.

Ratra's 'keeping is way ahead in comparison, yet he doesn't always allow the ball to ease into his gloves, the biggest single quality of a natural wicket-keeper. Indeed, his work was a mixture of the good and the bad in the ODIs, but, to his credit, Ratra did not wilt under the pressure, showing marked improvement towards the end of the Zimbabwe series.

We have seen him go for snicks in front of the first slip and this is a good sign. The man with gloves has to take responsibility for pouching the edges within his catching range. Ratra has the reflexes and the instinct, it's his technique that needs to be honed.

Ratra's moment of truth would arrive when he 'keeps to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who tend to achieve the extra bounce, in the Tests. The spin duo's variations would also come into play in the longer format. Ratra's spirited batting down the order will be a bonus, but his primary job will be to back the bowlers. A department where India has come up woefully short after Mongia's omission.

The tall, athletic paceman Tinu Yohannan is also on his first tour. He's already made history, becoming the first cricketer from Kerala to don the India cap. Son of Asian long jump gold-medallist T. C. Yohannan, Tinu is a natural athlete, and this is his greatest allay. And the fact that he's been primarily coached by the incomparable Dennis Lillee at Chennai's MRF Pace Foundation is another huge plus for Tinu.

The Caribbean tour should be a good learning experience for paceman Tinu Yohannan.-K. GAJENDRAN

He can work up a brisk speed, extracts good bounce, is strong enough to send down long spells, and did manage to create an impression on his Test debut at Mohali late last year, when he nipped one back to send the left-handed Marcus Trescothick's off-stump flying even as the English opener shouldered arms. Tinu has the right requisites for a fast bowler and the West Indian tour will be a wonderful learning experience for this 22-year-old Quilon-born cricketer.

For Dinesh Mongia, Wasim Jaffer, Sanjay Bangar, Ajay Ratra and Tinu Yohannan, five men on a mission, opportunities are bound to surface on a long tour. They have to open the door of possibilities and keep the stormy winds and the dark clouds away... and then there would only be sunshine.