Focus is back on all-rounders

The amendments made to One-Day rules have lent a new dimension to limited overs cricket. The introduction of the Super Substitute means all-rounders have a more vital role to play.

SANJAY RAJAN

Jai Prakash Yadav-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

AROUND this time last year, India travelled to the Emerald Isle for its lung-opener — the Asia Cup — amid high expectations, following what was easily one of its best seasons.

The year 2004 saw the Indian team, led by Sourav Ganguly, achieve great heights, as it squared a Test series in Australia and defeated Pakistan away in both the Test and One-Day series.

The Bengal batsman, who took over as skipper in 2000, had led the team to 13 tournament (involving three or more teams) finals in one-day cricket, including the 2003 World Cup. But the wheels of fortune turned a full circle last season, as India lost 13 of the 23 ODIs it contested in the past 12 months, with five of the nine victories coming against minnows.

It was easy to blame Ganguly's miserable run with the willow as the reason for the downslide. While his diminishing confidence with the bat indeed reflected in his approach to captaincy — as was evident in the Ahmedabad One-Dayer against Pakistan where India failed to defend 315 — it certainly cannot be termed as the only cause for the rot that was setting in. Inadequacy in bowling was another, the side's batting was not up to the mark and the team did not possess a quality all-rounder either.

India's search for all-rounders has been on for a decade now. And the fact that Ganguly did not have one to lend the team the much-needed balance saw the skipper bent on the seven-batsman formula in One-Day cricket.

Had a true all-rounder been available, perhaps Ganguly could have translated the side's dominance in ODIs into more than just three title-triumphs, of which two were rain-marred and thus shared.

India's successful chase of 326 in the 2002 NatWest Trophy final — made possible by Md. Kaif and Yuvraj Singh — convinced Ganguly of the efficacy of the seven-batsman formula. But then, this was possible only because Rahul Dravid doubled up as wicketkeeper, which the Karnataka cricketer had done in One-Day cricket since the 2002 tour of the West Indies. This adjustment was made because India could not find a wicketkeeper who could bat usefully at No. 7.

The arrival of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the burly wicketkeeper-batsman from Jharkhand who scored a swashbuckling 148 in the Vizag ODI against Pakistan, has solved that problem for now. But the search for a genuine all-rounder still continues.

The amendments made to One-Day rules have lent a new dimension to limited overs cricket. The introduction of the Super Substitute means all-rounders have a more vital role to play.

Though the tri-series in Sri Lanka is to be played under the old rules, the season ahead is packed with ODIs, which makes it imperative for the team to find a couple of good all-rounders.

Following the tri-nation in the Emerald Isle, India is scheduled to play another tri-series in Zimbabwe, seven ODIs against Sri Lanka at home, five ODIs against South Africa at home, five ODIs against Pakistan away, the Asia Cup in Pakistan, seven ODIs against England at home, a one-day series in the West Indies and the ICC Champions Trophy which it hosts.

Y.Venugopala-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The selection committee, chaired by Kiran More, has addressed the need of all-rounders, as was evident in the choice of Jai Prakash Yadav and new-comers Suresh Raina and Y. Venugopala Rao. Yadav is a medium-pacer and a hard-hitting batsman; Raina bats left and bowls off-spin, while Venugopala is a clean striker of the ball and a useful off-spinner.

Yadav, 31, has played in two ODIs, both against the West Indies in November 2002, where his performance was dismal (he failed to score and went wicketless in Jamshedpur, while in Rajkot he did not bat and had figures of 0-14). However, the Central Zone player, who bats at No. 4 for Railways, has been eyeing the all-rounder's slot in the Indian team for sometime now.

Yadav's recall goes to show that consistent performances in domestic competitions have their rewards. The Madhya Pradesh-born player toiled hard last season, scoring more than 600 runs and claiming 56 wickets.

Yadav did not give up hope when he was dropped after two ODIs. Instead he decided that the best way to make a comeback was by turning into a medium pace-bowling all-rounder, the kind India needs.

"I was a little nervous when I got selected the last time, and my main aim now is to grab my chance. It feels good to be selected," Yadav said.

"From where I come, even to play two matches is a big thing. I went back and decided to focus on my bowling and prepared accordingly. After my performance last season, I was sure I would be called for the camp, but getting selected is something else," he said.

A notable omission from the tour party is Ajit Agarkar. The 27-year-old bowling all-rounder played in the final One-Dayer against Pakistan in New Delhi in April. That Yadav has been chosen ahead of Agarkar goes to show that the selectors are keen on building the bench strength with an eye on the 2007 World Cup.

Former Test cricketer Chandrakant Pandit described Yadav as a steady bowler. "He is not quick, but possesses the ability to move the ball both ways," he said of his former Madhya Pradesh teammate. "He is a useful batsman and a very good fielder," the former Mumbai coach added.

"But we'll have to wait and see how he adapts at the highest level," cautioned Pandit.

Raina and Venugopala are batsman all-rounders.

Raina, 18, learnt the nuances of the game at the Sports Hostel in Kanpur. His strength as a batsman is his ability to adapt, as was witnessed during the must-win super league match against Sri Lanka in the last under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh when he walked out to bat at 39 for three. The Uttar Pradesh cricketer is a miserly spinner and an efficient fielder.

"I'm not surprised (at being selected). I'm happy. It's a result of my hard work," said Raina.

Venugopala, 23, too hails from an unfashionable domestic unit. The Andhra lad made his presence felt with some strong performances, notable among them being the remarkable double hundred which helped South Zone successfully chase England-A's target of 501 in the Duleep Trophy last season.

"It's a dream come true for me. I've played well over the last one-and-half-years in Ranji Trophy, first-class and for India-A teams and I expected this call-up. I just can't explain the feeling," said Venugopala, who was a key member of the Md. Kaif-led Colts team, which won the under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000.

It remains to be seen how much use Raina or Venugopala will be as bowlers in a team replete with part-time spinners such as Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar (as and when he gets fit) and Yuvraj Singh.

But with Tendulkar injured and Ganguly likely to remain on the sidelines during the tri-nation series, the three can expect a few opportunities. It's up to them to grab them.

As skipper Dravid put it, "It is a good opportunity for the young guys to show us what they can do at this level. The kind of squad we have gives us the flexibility to have different kinds of combinations. I think we will have to see the conditions, the pitch and we will decide on things like five bowlers or four bowlers just a day before the game."