India off to a bumpy start

THE Indians find themselves in a situation where they will have to take some hard decisions regarding the balance of the team. They have to stay away from soft, short-term options.

The Indian campaign in the Caribbean has got off to a bumpy start, with the Georgetown Test exposing the shortcomings in the team on more than one occasion.

Even given the fact that the pitches in the West Indies have slowed down considerably and that their pacemen are no longer menacing, the Indians will still have to be careful. The West Indies, even during the worst of times, are a much better side at home.

The Indian think-tank got it all wrong in the first Test, where make-shift men instead of specialists were given opportunities. The team suffered as a result.

It is important that the side goes into the remaining Tests with a specialist opener. Now Wasim Jaffer is in the squad purely on the basis of his performances while opening the innings and does deserve a break.

The experiment of Deep Dasgupta opening the batting has to stop. He has done a fair job in the past, but his confidence appears to be down at this stage, and Jaffer has to be given his due.

Then comes the tricky question. Who would be the two players to make way for this change, for Dasgupta doubles up as both wicket-keeper and opener.

Wasim Jaffer should come in for Dasgupta and Ajay Ratra could replace all-rounder Sanjay Bangar. Yet this would leave the Indians with a bowler short, for Bangar did bowl economically and to his field, in Georgetown.

This is where the team management will have to be decisive. Whether it wants another bowler in the side or ventures to the Tests with four specialist bowlers backed by Sachin Tendulkar's 'mixed spin' and skipper Sourav Ganguly's seamers. There would be less depth in the batting as well for Bangar is a useful, level-headed customer at the crease.

There is also the option of Bangar actually opening the innings - he is a regular opener for Ranji champion Railways - and then we would require just one change in the side with Ratra receiving a look-in at the expense of Dasgupta.

The balance of a eleven is quite the most important factor. An ideal team should have flexibility, and should leave the captain with choices. A wicket-keeper who can bat is surely welcome.

Yet, when we have a 'keeper who is not able to cling on to catches, and the resultant loss of confidence is affecting his batting also, it is clearly time for a change. Dasgupta has to make way for Ratra.

It is also vital that the bowlers have faith in the man standing behind the stumps. If a 'keeper repeatedly puts down catches, then that affects the confidence levels of the bowlers too.

Personally, if I am faced with a situation like this, I would opt for the specialists, Jaffer and Ratra. This would be hard on someone like Bangar, but then he can always be told in a proper manner about the compulsions of his omission.

Having said this, there is always the possibility of the team-management deciding to open with Bangar, and who knows the committed cricketer might come good too.

In my playing days, the side hardly had these problems. The side had a world beating all-rounder in Kapil Dev and he was two cricketers rolled into one, providing the team with a tremendous advantage.

He could knock off a quick-fire hundred coming in at No. 6 or 7, and then bowl tirelessly to pick more than five wickets regularly. A Kapil Dev in the present Indian team would make a huge difference but then such cricketers arrive once in a lifetime.

Then in my time, we also had men like Manoj Prabhakar and Ravi Shastri, both very useful cricketers. Men who gave balance to the team. Coming to wicket-keeping, Syed Kirmani, apart from being a world class wicket-keeper, was more than useful with the willow. Kiran More, who followed Kirmani as India's keeper, was efficient with both gloves and bat.

From here, it is evident that the Indian team then had quite a few choices. Sadly, this is not the case now.

The Indians have to set right the batting order too. Given his problems against the short-pitched bowling, Ganguly should not walk in at No 3. This could be all right on the flat Indian pitches, and against Zimbabwe, but even a mediocre West Indian attack is proving too much for him.

Ganguly was ill at ease against the short stuff in Georgetown and seeing the captain being in such discomfort sends the wrong message to the team. Ganguly would be well adviced to drop himself down the order, ideally at the No. 6 slot.

The captain appears to be batting under considerable pressure and coming lower down would surely make it easier for him. Rahul Dravid has a fine record away from home, rediscovered his touch in Gerorgetown, and he could well come in at one drop.

The Indians would do well not to take the West Indians lightly. Carl Hooper's double-hundred in the first Test was an ominous sign for the Indians and he is a batsman who can dominate an attack.

That the West Indies reached 500 plus with Brian Lara out for no score doesn't augur well for India. The Indians have to cash in on the early breakthroughs, but time and again, we have seen them letting the opposition off the hook with some forgettable bowling and catching.

In Test cricket, it is crucial that there is pressure from both the ends, and time and again this has been missing from the Indian attack. For instance, Javagal Srinath bowled a superb initial spell, but Zaheer was off-colour and the spinners hardly inspired confidence. Harbhajan Singh was sorely missed in the Indian attack.

An away series win outside the sub-continent has eluded the Indians for a long while. The Test series in the Caribbean represents a fine opportunity for Ganguly's men. One hopes they don't miss out this time.