It's time to strike

While the team has clearly lost momentum in the crucial last leg leading to the World cup, Dravid has not exactly flourished with the willow as an ODI opener.-V. GANESAN

Apart from the strains of leading the side through a critical phase, there is pressure on Rahul Dravid to deliver as a batsman. The heat is really on him, but knowing the man, it could also bring out the best in him, writes S. Dinakar.

India needs to regroup following the debacle in Kuala Lumpur. The team's failure to qualify for the final of the DLF Cup tri-series has thrown up serious questions. With the World Cup looming, the selectors and the team management will have to be decisive in their response.

Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell, during the 15 months in tandem so far, have embarked on a brave course. Youngsters have been thrown into the heat of the battle and an effort has been made to turn the team into a more flexible unit.

"These are not experiments. These are part of the strategy that can change according to the situation and the conditions," avers skipper Dravid.

Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell (left, giving instructions to R. P. Singh and Sreesanth) , during the 15 months in tandem so far, have embarked on a brave course. Youngsters have been thrown into the heat of the battle and an effort has been made to turn the team into a more flexible unit.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The idea was based on sound reasoning. Apart from building bench strength — a critical and often neglected area — it would also keep the seniors on their toes; they would not become complacent.

Yet, in the bid to transform the side into a more versatile unit — the coach Chappell has dwelt on the concept of Total Cricket where the roles are interchangeable — is the stability of the side being compromised? Is the constant shuffling of the pack leaving the side with an unsettled batting order? Should not the role definitions be clearer, particularly in the run-up to the World Cup?

In the DLF Cup and the five-match ODI series in the West Indies, the Indian batting functioned in fits and starts. The message was loud and clear — the batting order needed to settle down.

While the team has clearly lost momentum in the crucial last leg leading to the World Cup, Dravid has not exactly flourished with the willow as an ODI opener. The expectations, as a shrewd tactician, a leader of men, and a high performance batsman of rare technical expertise, are high from Dravid. He began in a promising manner at the top of the order, filling in for an injured Sachin Tendulkar, producing innings of 92 and 105, at the expense of the Pakistani and the West Indian attack in Abu Dhabi and Kingston. Subsequently, the runs have dried up — Dravid has scores of 11, 0, 15, 9 not out, 26, 6 and 0 in his last seven ODI innings as opener.

Tendulkar has since returned, but Dravid, save the last league game of the DLF series against Australia, has continued to open. Consequently, Sehwag has been pushed down the order for most part.

Apart from the strains of leading the side through a critical phase, there is pressure on Dravid to deliver as a batsman. Under the circumstances, is it prudent for him to open?

Says former India captain and now the chairman of the national selection committee, Dilip Vengsarkar, "If you have Sehwag in the eleven, then you have to open with him. Otherwise, you are indirectly hinting that he is not in form. This will not do his confidence any good."

Dravid and Tendulkar are also technically the most accomplished batsmen in the side. In the event of both departing early in conditions encouraging the pacemen, the middle-order could be exposed.

In a line-up of shot-makers, Dravid offers much solidity with his judicious stroke selection. He has also been innovative at No. 4 or 5, prising the attack open with clever placements.

Tendulkar and Dravid are also batsmen with sure footwork, which enables them to adapt to both seaming tracks with pace and pitches of inconsistent bounce. It is imperative that Dravid switches to the No. 4 slot to bolster the middle-order.

Vengsarkar says, "Some of the Indian batsmen tend to stroke on the rise. This is not always possible." When the ball jags around, like it did in Kuala Lumpur, a tendency to play away from the body lets the Indians down. While the long-term solution, as Vengsarkar points out, lies in preparing lively pitches at home for domestic matches, India, in the months ahead, has to find quick answers with the material on hand.

Sehwag does not quite possess the ideal footwork, but then he is a confidence batsman, who relishes and uses the pace of the ball. If backed, he can still inflict psychological scars on the attack.

Does Dravid need to be more assertive? A few former cricketers have suggested, rather strongly, that it is the Indian captain, not the coach, who should be calling the shots.

Sachin Tendulkar ... technically accomplished.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

But then, is this very perception, that Dravid is playing second fiddle to Chappell, correct? There are, on the contrary, enough reasons to believe that Dravid is his own man.

Chappell, indeed, is a forceful personality. He can swing arguments in his favour, influence the thought process of the man at the other end. The Indian coach has a way with words, comprehends the mind as well as the game.

To conclude, however, that Dravid is not a major part of decision-making process would be stretching things too far. The Indian captain is a strong individual, can speak his mind.

Reveals V. B. Chandrasekhar, who recently completed his term as a National selector from South Zone: "Given the aura around Chappell, you would get the impression that he would steamroller the other person. It was the not case with Rahul during the selection meetings. He is not someone who can be pushed around. He is very clear about what he wants and the captain's views always carry weight."

Chandrasekhar cites a case in point. "You see, Dinesh Mongia's name for a place in the Indian ODI team was put forward by Dravid. He then explained why he needed a specialist batsman who could be expected to contribute regularly with his left-arm spin."

The choice of Mongia came under criticism, but the left-hander, subsequently, justified his selection.

The former selector insists that he, at no point, saw a rift between the captain and the coach. "They spoke in one voice. And they believe in the process. I never got the impression that one was trying to force his view on the other."

The chemistry between Dravid and Chappell is right; it is built on mutual respect. To be fair to the duo, India did turn the corner in ODIs. The side became resilient and fearless on the chase; the Men in Blue clinched 17 pursuits from the beginning of the ODI series against Sri Lanka at home last year. This was a significant achievement considering that Team India had, often, faltered in the second half of the contest.

And younger cricketers with enormous possibilities such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Ifran Pathan, Munaf Patel and S. Sreesanth were developed. Youth brought with it energy and enthusiasm; Indian fielding turned vibrant.

In an effort to disrupt the opposition gameplan, Pathan and Dhoni were used as floaters in the line-up. The ploy worked. And Yuvraj Singh, his body weight much better distributed, donned the cloak of a match-winner, stroking with balance and precision. Ajit Agarkar bowled with greater zest.

Dravid often said, "the process is more important than winning and losing."

However, by now, with the World Cup approaching, the `process' should have given way to stability and winning. In other words, what some refer to as `experimentation,' should have concluded by now.

Says India `A' coach Robin Singh: "I feel it (shuffling of the batting order) has been going on for too long. By now the cricketers should know their roles. Constant changes could leave them unsettled. Also the move loses its surprise value. The opposition comes prepared."

Along the way, Yuvraj's sloppy footwork has reappeared, Dhoni has gone off the boil with the willow, and Pathan faces a career crisis as a bowler. It would only be right to adopt a balanced view here. Dravid and Chappell deserve credit for infusing life into the side, in the process, making it more dynamic. However, they also need to realise that India does not quite possess the depth of reserve talent that Australia has to continue rotating its players.

From here on, it is imperative that India regains momentum and self-belief. And stability is essential for consolidation.

The selectors and the team-management have tough selection issues to resolve. Should Pathan, who appears more a batsman-bowler these days, keep his place in the squad even if he has suffered a rather dramatic slump in his bowling form? The left-armer has to work on his technique, needs to bowl plenty of overs in domestic cricket. His primary job is to strike with the ball for India; Pathan's failure to finish his quota is not making Dravid's task in the management of overs any easier.

The wicket-taking S. Sreesanth finds himself left out of the ICC Champions Trophy, even if he has been the most innovative of the Indian pacemen.

A decision would also have to be taken on the fate of a few seniors. Given Pathan's wayward bowling, perhaps Zaheer Khan could be fitted into the scheme of things. And former India captain Sourav Ganguly, who knows much about the big stage, might still have some cricket left in him.

Although someone like Mohammed Kaif is among the runs and remains an exceptional fielder, are his contributions with the willow making a difference to the fortunes of the side? India requires `impact' cricketers.

Dravid needs to have his finger on the pulse. After all, he has to guide the side through choppy waters, as a captain and a key batsman. The heat is on Dravid. Knowing the man, it could also bring out the best in him.