India has the edge

Yuvraj Singh has settled in at No. 5, and as he displayed in Belfast, can swing matches around with aggressive strokeplay.-R.Ragu

India should win the One-day series. Dravid and his men have more firepower and greater balance, writes S. Dinakar.

Yuvraj Singh has settled in at No. 5,

India is humming again in limited overs cricket. Come to think of it, the side’s 2-1 series triumph in the Future Cup series against South Africa in Belfast must rank among its finest overseas achievements in recent times.

The weather was cold and the conditions were distinctly pacemen-friendly. And India was up against an opponent, which, despite the absence of skipper Graeme Smith and celebrated all-rounder Shaun Pollock, was a formidable outfit.

Only months ago, South Africa was ranked No. 1 in the world, and only months ago, India made a shocking exit in the first round of the World Cup. Things can change.

South Africa suffered because its premier pacemen are all ‘hit-the-deck’ bowlers, whereas pitching the ball up and allowing it to swing was among the premier requirements for success in Belfast. The Indian pacemen comprehended the trick better.

India would start the seven-match ODI series against England, beginning on August 21, as favourite. England’s shortcomings in the limited overs cricket were exposed by the West Indians. The side desperately seeks a fully fit Andrew Flintoff.

Crucially, the Indians got their opening combination right in Belfast. Sachin Tendulkar was able to use the pace of the ball at the top of the order, and Sourav Ganguly’s elegant left-handed ways meant the bowlers were forced to switch their line.

Tendulkar batted with refreshing freedom, which is bad news for the English bowlers. When Makhaya Ntini erred in direction, he dismissed him to the cover-point fence. When Andre Nel banged it in short, he pulled the bowler past the square-leg ropes. After a while, Tendulkar seemed to be enjoying his batting again.

India will have to re-think the No. 3 slot, where Gautam Gambhir has not really delivered in crunch games. In the English conditions, skipper Rahul Dravid will be a better choice at this slot. In a scenario where a total between 250 and 275 could be an extremely competitive one, Dravid, with his technical attributes, could construct and consolidate.

Sending in Mahendra Singh Dhoni at No. 4 would not be a bad idea. By this stage the early movement for the new ball bowlers should have been negotiated, and Dhoni would have the overs to build an innings and then enter the destructive mode.

Here, the team-management could get Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik to swap wicket-keeping roles in the ODIs. It makes sense for Karthik to don the big gloves in the shorter version. Apart from providing Dhoni, a match-winner in this format, some relief, such a move would also give the think-tank a chance to explore the possibilities in Dhoni as a medium pacer.

Dhoni often commands respect in the nets with his often nippy medium pace. He did make an impression in the Faisalabad Test of 2006, achieving some bounce and hitting the bat harder than the batsmen expected.

Yuvraj Singh has settled in at No. 5, and as he displayed in Belfast, can swing matches around with aggressive strokeplay. The left-hander has matured as a batsman. In Befast, he patiently saw through a torrid phase, before settling the contest with a blaze of shots. However, Yuvraj requires to work on his footwork and balance while countering deliveries that leave him. There would be days when he would play and nick.

Karthik is both industrious and innovative at No. 6, which is a rare combination. The young man relishes crisis situations, has a mind that ticks and a game that can adapt to the side’s needs. His combative instincts, complemented by sparkling footwork and supreme fitness, suggest India has a man for the occasion when things begin to go wrong.

The Indian run-chases in the second and third ODIs in Belfast were well paced. The side held its nerve, which is a healthy sign. In the past, India had pressed the panic button when under stress. This time, the side retained self-belief.

Importantly, the set batsman — Yuvarj — stayed till the end. Batsmen in form have to take more responsibility and play for the team and Yuvraj did just that. Vitally, India did not stagnate in the middle-overs, where the game often witnesses major momentum shifts.

The No. 7 is a critical slot and India should well think of inducting a fifth bowler who can bat. Irfan Pathan has been bowling with greater rhythm, pace and control — he is swinging the ball into the right-hander — in the nets at the MRF Pace Foundation and if the all-rounder performs well on the India ‘A’ tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya, he should return to the India side.

While Pathan would provide greater depth to the batting, he could also be the fifth bowler, lending the side more balance. India would also have a left-hander in the latter half of an innings. It is essential to have the right mix of right and left-handers is a line-up.

Ideally, India should have five specialist bowlers, backed by the part-timers who can be brought in, if one of the specialists has an off-day, or, in a bid to break partnerships. Ganguly’s medium pace can be particularly handy in English conditions.

Zaheer Khan is operating with zest and common sense while his younger left-arm pace compatriot Rudra Pratap Singh is getting the ball to straighten or come in with greater consistency. R. P. Singh’s high-arm action, deceptive pace and bounce make him a paceman with a future.

Ajit Agarkar continues to be an enigma. The right-armer answered his critics with a sharp spell in the decisive ODI in Belfast, opening and cleaning up Jacques Kallis with an absolute beauty. His action is rather round-armish these days, but on days when his mind and body are in harmony, Agarkar can sting. This said, Santhakumaran Sreesanth should continue to be in the frame for the ODIs. Attacking bowlers need to be encouraged — they could win you big games. Without compromising on the aggressive nature of his bowling, Sreesanth can work on consistency — this is possible.

Piyush Chawla was a revelation in Belfast and should test the English batsman with his flight and dip. The young leggie is so much the better bowler when he gives the ball air. Piyush is getting his leg-spinners to turn more and his quicker flatter googly is more of a surprise weapon now; he is a transformed bowler. Off-spinner Ramesh Powar has also not done his cause any harm, operating with control and craft.

The Indians have to sharpen their fielding, there were some glitches in Belfast, while the running between the wickets — particularly the grounding of the bat — needs to improve.

Rahul Dravid and his men will be up against an opponent that floundered against the West Indies. The England ODI squad is, perpectually, ‘a work in progress.’ The English selectors, by chopping and changing the ODI squad, have not really allowed the side to develop as a unit. Stability is essential for a side to move forward.

The omission of wicket-keeper- batsman Paul Nixon is a case in point. With his energy and enterprise, Nixon was a positive influence on the England team, both, during the tri-series in Australia, and, in the World Cup. His work behind the wickets was efficient and his unorthodox methods with the willow opened gaps on the field, disrupted the rhythm of the attacks. Against the West Indies, Matthew Prior was preferred to Nixon — the selectors tried out Prior in a top-order slot — and England lost the influential Nixon.

The return of Flintoff — he could be fit by the time the ODIs begin — should provide the side with a heavy hitter and a strike bowler with pace and reverse swing. The absence of Flintoff hurt England against the West Indies, where the likes of Stuart Broad were taken to the cleaners in the decisive phase.

There is also a possibility that Marcus Trescothick, reportedly at peace with himself now, could be back for the ODI series. After Flintoff and Keven Peitersen, the fluent Trescothick has been England’s biggest match-winner.

Much of England’s fortunes would hinge on Peitersen’s form. The lack of runs from his willow — Daren Powell prised him out in the decider after a short-pitched flier-full length ball combination ploy worked — cost England the series against the West Indies. Peitersen is a momentum batsman and the Indians should seek to frustrate him by denying him scoring opportunities early on.

Ravi Bopara — the find of the World Cup for England — should be back from fitness concerns and he is a calm head with a flurry of strokes. He is a smart cricketer and a potential star. Paul Collingwood, a fire fighter, could prove another roadblock for India. Would he retain ODI captaincy when Flintoff returns?

The English pace attack — James Anderson and Liam Plunkett should share the new ball — is not without ability but is, by no means, a threatening one. The slower but cleverer Matthew Hoggard with his fuller length and swing could probe the Indians more. Monty Panesar’s teasing left-arm spin could pose problems too, even for the accomplished players of spin.

All things considered, India should win the series. Dravid and his men have more firepower and greater balance.

THE ITINERARY

Only ODI: Scotland v India at Glasgow, Aug. 16, 2007

Tour Match: England Lions v Indians at Northampton, Aug. 18, 2007

1st ODI: England v India at Southampton, Aug. 21, 2007

2nd ODI: England v India at Bristol, Aug. 24, 2007

3rd ODI: England v India at Birmingham, Aug. 27, 2007

4th ODI: England v India at Manchester, Aug. 30, 2007

5th ODI: England v India at Leeds, Sept. 2, 2007

6th ODI: England v India at The Oval, Sept. 5, 2007

7th ODI: England v India at Lord’s, Sept. 8, 2007