India's major cricketing woe

RAHUL DRAVID ... leading a team of raw youngsters and struggling veterans?-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH ?

India lacks a core of respected elders able to carry the team along through hell and high water, writes Peter Roebuck.

India's main cricketing problem is easy to state and hard to resolve. Fingers may be pointed at the captain or the coach or the selectors or a crowd-pleasing Board. Blame may be laid at the feet of a weak domestic competition or bad pitches or the damaging effect wealth has on the will of the players. Each argument has merit. None is the immediate cause of the current setbacks.

Put simply, India lacks a core of respected elders able to carry the side along through hell and high water. Amongst those competing for selection, only one player is at the peak of his powers. And he is captaining the side.

Sourav Ganguly was lucky in this regard. No leader could have hoped for a better bunch of seniors than he had under his command. He enjoyed the unstinting support of a group of responsible and articulate warriors. Many memorable victories were recorded. Indian cricket is in their debt.

Rahul Dravid must look back with yearning. Relatively speaking, he walks naked onto the field. His team consists of raw youngsters and struggling veterans. He searches in vain for pillars to lean upon in hard times. Only in this light can the selection of the team to tour South Africa be understood.

It is not so much Anilji the bowler who has been chosen, as Kumble the man. No-one watching Sachin Tendulkar's scratchy effort in Mohali could doubt that his best days lie behind him. Sensing vulnerability, the Australians attacked with bumpers. Once the boldest of batsmen, Tendulkar looked uncomfortable. Alas, he was again hit on the head. It is not the blow that worries batsmen, but the story it tells. Nor can Virender Sehwag be relied upon to enhance the culture of the side. He remains self-indulgent. The rest are playing for their places.

India's pace attack is especially inexperienced. If anyone is to blame for the present disappointments then it is Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra. They were given the responsibility to lead the attack on the retirement of Javagal Srinath and they did not accept it. Having studied under the wing of a fine operator, they were supposed to nurse along the next generation. Instead they lost fitness, pace, and eventually their places.

Too many Indian players become lazy in office. Consider the differing pressures put upon Mitchell Johnson and Irfan Pathan. Both emerged from backwaters. Like most youthful players, both have experienced the ups and downs of the game. However, the Queenslander was given time to learn in a tough domestic competition. He made lots of mistakes, bowled badly plenty of times, none of them whilst wearing the colours of his country. When he was ready, he was chosen to play for Australia and even then was treated carefully. A toll was taken of first spell in Mohali, so the ball was thrown to more seasoned campaigners. Later he was brought back and looked dangerous.

Contrastingly Pathan, a much younger man, has been asked to lead the attack. Inevitably his form comes and goes. He is still an apprentice. Munaf Patel and Sreesanth are in the same boat, novices who ought to be learning the craft, not carrying the hopes of a nation. These fellows are fine cricketers. India has chosen well. But too much has rested on their shoulders. No wonder Kumble has been recalled. Wasim Jaffer also has much to commend him.

Zaheer is another case. Time has come for him to lead the way. He has been given a second chance, and must take it. No more half-measures from him.

* * * The Team

Indian team for the tour of South Africa where it will play five one-dayers, beginning November 19.

Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid (captain), Wasim Jaffer, Mohammad Kaif, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Mongia, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Irfan Pathan, Dinesh Karthik, Zaheer Khan, Anil Kumble, S. Sreesanth, Harbhajan Singh, Munaf Patel, Ajit Agarkar (V. R. V. Singh on stand by).