Looking for a magic formula

THE balance of a side has a direct bearing on its fortunes. Should a team play five or four bowlers, and could an extra batsman be squeezed in? That fifth bowler is often an all-rounder, who, apart from giving an additional option in bowling, adds depth to the batting.

THE balance of a side has a direct bearing on its fortunes. Should a team play five or four bowlers, and could an extra batsman be squeezed in? That fifth bowler is often an all-rounder, who, apart from giving an additional option in bowling, adds depth to the batting. Some fortunate sides, such as South Africa, have more than one all-rounder, and these are versatile outfits.

For a few other teams such as the formidable Australia, wicket-keeper batsman Adam Gilchrist has emerged the all-rounder, destroying attacks, picking up smart catches, and creating that extra slot in the side. Until recently, England and Zimbabwe had Alec Stewart and Andy Flower, both world class performers, in similar roles. They could have walked into most sides as specialist batsmen, but they were also regular wicket-keepers.

India possesses neither a world class all-rounder nor a Gilchrist, a Stewart or a Flower. And the lack of batting depth often left it exposed in the climactic stages of a limited overs international. This forced a compromise. Out went the specialist wicket-keeper and in came a batsman who could also keep. Rahul Dravid had to don the big gloves.

On the face of it, the move made sense. After all, teams with greater batting depth stood a better chance of clinching duels when they got close. With Dravid 'keeping, India could field seven specialist batsmen, and for a while, it even appeared as if the Indians had stumbled on a magic formula.

India won the NatWest Trophy in the English summer of 2002, with the seventh batsman in Mohammed Kaif making a vital contribution, and then emerged joint winner in the Champions Trophy in September-October. The Indian team was peaking ahead of the World Cup.

The team-man that he is, Dravid could not say no to the idea of him 'keeping when coach John Wright and skipper Sourav Ganguly put forward the suggestion. Even if the additional workload was likely to prove demanding physically and mentally. As Vice-captain, he was also a part of the team management.

However, this was a move with a definite objective — excelling in the World Cup. It was never likely to be stretched beyond the premier quadrennial limited overs competition.

Dravid, taking the extra burden in his stride, strove to do justice to his new role. Then again, although he held on to most of the catches, Dravid did have the appearance of a makeshift man struggling to come to grips with 'keeping.

Now that the World Cup is behind the team, it will have to reconsider the question of having a specialist wicket-keeper batsman back in the ODI eleven. And both sides of the coin should be looked at.

With a quality all-rounder still nowhere in sight and the wicket-keepers not among big runs, a case can always be made for Dravid continuing to do the work behind the stumps in the ODIs.

After all, India, except for that disastrous campaign in New Zealand, has performed beyond expectations in recent times culminating with a runner-up finish in the World Cup. And Dravid, apart from making crucial runs in the Indian middle-order, has not let the side down with the 'keeper's gloves, even if his methods behind the stumps often did not present a pretty sight. He has turned out to be the all-rounder that India was so desperately seeking.

On the other hand, Dravid keeping wickets was sending the wrong message to a whole new breed of wicket-keepers in the country — men like Parthiv Patel and Ajay Ratra, who do appear to have the ability. There is also the danger of Dravid suffering an injury while 'keeping, depriving India of a key batsman, who has an extraordinary record on away soil (3265 runs in 38 Tests at 57.28).

If Dravid is rendered hors de combat during the triangular ODI series that precedes the Australian tour, it is bound to severely dent India's prospects in the campaign down under. Can the side afford to run this risk? There is also a scenario where the rigours of 'keeping could leave Dravid jaded mentally, having a negative effect on his batsmanship. There is no denying that the selectors and the team management will have to give the younger men a fling at some stage for 'keeping is a specialist's job. Ajay Ratra has a Test match hundred to his credit in the West Indies, and Parthiv Patel's batting ability is vastly under-rated, and with more exposure at the international level, they could well turn the corner with the willow. Shutting the door on them is bound to dent their confidence.

In the final analysis, the team always comes first, and if there is a specific request for Dravid to keep from the captain and the coach, he would have to perform the job. Yet, the beginning of the season represents the ideal time to explore other options.