India going on the right path

THE ICC Champions Trophy was a test of strength for the various sides before the big one - the World Cup.

India certainly showed that it deserved to be counted as one of the top contenders with a sterling performance in Colombo, where the side not only made the final, but gave itself a fine chance of winning the tournament before rain intervened so cruelly.

The Indian side fought well and it is clear that it will be one of the strongest batting sides going into the World Cup. The idea of playing seven specialist batsmen has surely helped and India is an outfit that has the potential to go all the way in South Africa.

Virender Sehwag's ability to take on the bowling in the early overs and give the rate of scoring a huge boost was obviously a big factor in the Indian march to the final.

He is such a clean striker of the ball that the bowlers of the world have quite a task on hand when they operate against him. Sehwag has so much time, and so many shots at his disposal, that he is always going to be a threat to the bowling figures of the best of bowlers.

I like his approach to batting and there are no half measures when he is at the crease. The ball is there to be hit and he does give it a wallop.

Sehwag's bowling, especially in pressure situations, has been a revelation too, and he did bowl stump to stump, seldom allowing the batsmen room to launch into big blows. He has the makings of a fine-all rounder, at least in one-day cricket, where he is a match-winner.

India has so much depth in batting that the chances are at least a couple of batsmen will click in an innings, providing the total a healthy look. Sourav Ganguly, the skipper, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid bring experience to the line-up, while Sehwag, Yuveraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif are three of the brightest young cricketers.

Apart from their strokeful batting and wonderful running between the wickets, Yuveraj and Kaif were brilliant on the field, and they were setting an example to the others. These two youngsters have certainly added a lot of pep to the side.

In the Indian bowling, Zaheer Khan was outstanding throughout the tournament. The left-arm paceman has come on a lot in recent times, and he is making life difficult for the batsmen in any stage of the innings. He bowled a consistent line at a sharp pace and got the ball to move around.

It was good to see Javagal Srinath make an appearance again at the international level. He has been a committed performer over the years for India and, in fact, the selectors should have picked him earlier, when he expressed a desire to play in the ODIs.

However, when he did receive an opportunity to play, in the first final in Colombo, he had very little time to recover physically after a long, tiring flight from London that saw him arriving only on the morning of the match. It is that much more difficult for a fast bowler to deliver in a big game after such an ordeal.

It is great news that he has changed his mind about retiring from Test cricket. Even when he announced that he was bidding adieu to Test cricket a few months ago, I had a feeling that it was a bit premature; he did have some more Test cricket left in him. Now that he is back, he should add teeth to the Indian pace attack.

In the spin department, Harbhajan Singh was exceptional. He has been maturing fast, and the extra responsibility, with Anil Kumble not being in exemplary form, has only brought out the best in him. Even in a one-day game, there is room for a quality spinner.

He flighted the ball well, maintained a good line, and kept his cool, even on those rare occasions when the batsmen went after him. He will have a lot more bowling to do in the days ahead.

The West Indies series is the immediate challenge before the side, and India needs to find answers to some pressing problems in Test cricket.

The team-management will have to be decisive about the openers. In the past one year, we have seen too many changes at the top of the order and this does not augur well for the side. If someone is selected he has to be given a fair run; otherwise don't pick him at all.

There is also the need to find the right all-rounder. I was happy with Sanjay Bangar's display in England, and India would do well if it gives this fighting cricketer a long run, instead of fielding him occasionally.

It is essential for a cricketer at the highest level to possess the right temperament and Bangar appears to have plenty of this quality. With the bat or with the ball, he is not a player who is going to give in easily. Yet, it is a bowling all-rounder that India seeks quite desperately. Bangar is more of a batsman-bowler.

India would also do well, if it grooms left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, whom I rate as among the best spinners in the land. He is young, is in fine form, and this is the time for the selectors to back this talented cricketer.

Like Harbhajan, Kartik believes in giving the ball air, and is not rattled even when he comes under punishment. He has the loop, can get the ball to both drift and spin, and is always on the look-out for wickets. He is also someone who has not received the best of treatment from the selectors.

The West Indians will be no pushovers, despite the absence of Lara, and the side does have some fine strokemakers such as Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds, Ramnaresh Sarwan and importantly, captain Carl Hooper. And Shivnarine Chanderpaul could be a thorn in the Indian flesh again. The think-tank has to come up with a specific strategy to counter Chanderpaul, and his stubborn ways at the crease.

The Caribbeans have a useful bunch of pacemen too, and though they might not be big names, Mervyn Dillon & Co. did help West Indies win the home series against India. Dillon can be sharp on occasions while left-armer Pedro Collins troubled most Indian batsmen including Sachin Tendulkar not too long back.

Sourav Ganguly's men should win the series, but it will not be easy. India would do well not to underestimate its opponent.