Future looks promising

Sachin Tendulkar... a phenomenal run.-AP

The present Indian team, with the exception of maybe one or two, and a couple of injured players, is the best 15 available from the talent at its disposal, writes Nandita Sridhar.

We’ve seen defeats to our neighbour, grown numb to the losses, and witnessed a 24-year blank against Pakistan at home. Keeping these in mind, the ease with which India completed its win in the Indian Oil Cup might seem a watershed moment in India-Pakistan one-day series. The dynamics and the balance are changing. The Indian team is winning. There might even come a time — should the Indo-Pak overkill continue — when Javed Miandad’s last-ball six migh t not inspire the sort of morbid despair that it has done for years.

But there’ll be a sizable bunch that will put the victory in perspective and run down the achievement. We beat Pakistan. So what? We lost to Australia at home. There is some truth to it, but to be fair to the team, the Australia series was too close to the Twenty20 Championship win. Credit should be given where it’s due.

What worked for India in this series was a rare triple. Indians have always had a consolatory relationship with individual performances, which would seldom coincide with team successes; this explains the Indian public’s obsession with individual statistics and records. But for the first time in years, three of India’s best batsmen fired concurrently. It made for brilliant viewing and set up the Indian win. Offered pancakes to play on, Indian one-day sides had always relied on their batsmen. The bowlers were meant for ancillary support and the odd freakish spell.

Man of the Series Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar and M. S. Dhoni, one can safely declare, won the series for India, with steady support from Harbhajan Singh. Yuvraj’s ball-striking was a seamless confluence of force, control and grace, like he set out to achieve just that. The hitting was three-dimensional, with no compromise whatsoever. He was imposing at the crease, a disturbing sight for the bowlers, and consistent. Dhoni’s macabre hitting was there, but so was the responsibility and restraint that were often demanded from him. In maturing from the flashy and flamboyant faces of the middle-order to its strength, the duo’s metamorphosis has been significant.

“It’s a pleasure to bat with Yuvraj. Even if I couldn’t score boundaries, he would do it and keep the runs coming,” said captain Dhoni. “We tend to come lower down the order, which is why we get a lot of chances to bat together. What works for our partnership is the running between the wickets.”

Their innings were earlier set up by some vintage batting by Sachin Tendulkar. Throwback shots and contemporary savagery merged for a luscious display of batsmanship. The nineties (we’ll choose to dispense with ‘nervous’ for someone with 41 centuries in 18 years) consumed him twice but that will soon be rendered irrelevant. Such ease, freedom and power are an endangered combine.

Gautam Gambhir started well, but tapered off. He needs to be persisted with in one-dayers. A big knock, that has eluded him so far, might help his cause. His body-language belied his aggression, and it helped that Dhoni had faith in him. Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag got the occasional start but fell victims to their old vice, the edge to the ’keeper with negligible (and in Sehwag’s case non-existent) footwork.

Robin Uthappa had a poor series after a good one against Australia, but he’s the future of the one-day side. From what one has seen of Rohit Sharma in T20s and ODIs, his repeated benching seems unfair.

The bowlers had it tough. The 35th over ball-change rule and three day-night matches in India , especially at Mohali in November, did not do good for them. How does one play such a game? Kanpur was the only track that offered something for the spinners. Harbhajan Singh was the standout bowler, getting the best out of the wickets.

Zaheer Khan and R. P. Singh had a mixed series. Even Guwahati, that had a tradition of helping seamers upfront, turned out a sluggish strip. The opening duo was also forced to deal with Salman Butt in great form. What they can be credited for is picking the odd crucial wicket. Irfan Pathan was accurate, if not too productive. But the seamers have some hope. The next one-day venture the team will embark on will be the VB Series in Australia. Before that, there’s the Test series against Pakistan and Australia that will offer a chance for the bowlers to get into rhythm, probably on lively pitches, with the red cherry.

The perennial chink in any Indian team, the fielding, was a worry in this series as well. The catching was passable, but the ground fielding was mediocre. It might have escaped censure since the opponent, Pakistan, was equally bad. But against better fielding sides this may look too glaring.

Cricket Manager Lalchand Rajput said that the team was working on that aspect, and that there were improvements. “Anything takes time to bear fruit, but we are definitely improving. It will get better with each series,” he said. We’ll have to take his word.

While Dhoni the batsman clicked, Dhoni the captain was competent. India was not spoilt for choice when the selectors chose the one-day squad, but Dhoni would have been the better option even otherwise. The present Indian team looks quite balanced. It has seasoned veterans, along with fresh, young minds. Someone like Dhoni, who’s calm and flexible, is a good liaison man. There’s scope for improvement, as he showed in the first two matches with his bowlers, but he’s young, intelligent and mature enough to learn quickly. Being Anil Kumble’s deputy in Tests will only enrich his experience before the next one-day series.

There’ll be questions raised after the series win against Pakistan. How good is this Indian ODI team? As always, we burden our teams with the demands of the toughest stage in cricket.

People will ask if this team is good enough to deal with the hostility of Australia in their backyard. To judge the present team with a fair bit of accuracy, the questions to be addressed first are, is the best eleven or fifteen representing the nation in ODIs?

Is the squad progressing, moving towards a more successful future and improving with every series? And, how good are the reserves to protect the core group from the meaningless overkill of one-day cricket?

The present team, with the exception of maybe one or two, and a couple of injured players, is the best 15 available from the talent at its disposal. Is the team showing progress? Though too much cannot be read into a series against a below-par side, it’s a start.

But to consistently push for higher spots, the fielding has to improve, and the bowlers need to find a way to work around the ball-change rule. Bowling at the death has been an issue.

One-day cricket is almost instantly gratifying. A win or a loss creates a false idea of success, failure and the merits and demerits of a team. Media pressure after every loss in even the smallest tournament is sometimes unfair on the players, but one has to work around the system.

The one-day team of the future needs to keep its players fresh through the gruelling schedule next year. Tournaments have to be prioritised, and the core players protected and used for the more important one-day tournaments and the Tests. If that means losing a meaningless one-day series to achieve a better purpose, then it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.

* * * * * India moves up

The 3-2 ODI series win over Pakistan has propelled India to fourth in the ICC one-day championship table, overtaking Shoaib Malik’s men, who have dropped a couple of rungs to sixth in the latest list.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side is now just four rating points behind third-placed New Zealand and will swap places with it if South Africa makes a clean-sweep of the three-match ODI series starting November 25.

Australia still leads the table, five rating points clear of South Africa.

The rankings: 1. Australia (128), 2. South Africa (123), 3. New Zealand (114), 4. India (110), 5. Sri Lanka (108), 6. Pakistan (107), 7. England (107), 8. West Indies (102), 9. Bangladesh (48), 10. Ireland (28).