More questions than answers

The current tour of Kiwiland by India was presumed to be a dress-rehearsal for the 2015 World Cup in which along with Australia, New Zealand is a co-host. Defending champion India was expected to assess the conditions, cope well and gain positive cues that might hold it in good stead during February and March next year. But, after the Indian debacle in the one-dayers, ‘what next,’ wonders K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Just as the Board of Control for Cricket in India — along with its counterparts in England and Australia — has set in motion a move to claim a controlling stake in the willow game, out there on the field the opposite has happened as David quelled Goliath in New Zealand.

It just shows that for all the marketing spin, whopping telecast revenues and the muscle it gifts on the negotiating table, sport in essence is about the space it offers the so-called ‘lowly’ teams to punch above their weight and stun fancied rivals in the arena.

India did it in 1983 at Lord’s while the West Indies lost a World Cup that many thought belonged to the men from the Caribbean. And now New Zealand, ranked eighth in ODIs until recently, stunned the Indians, who were placed at the number one slot before they self-combusted in Napier, Hamilton (twice) and Wellington while eking out a tie in Auckland.

India lost the series 0-4 and if the present is all about the dregs of defeat’s despair trickling down our throats, what it augurs for the road ahead is equally scary. The current tour was presumed to be a dress-rehearsal for the 2015 World Cup in which along with Australia, New Zealand is a co-host. Defending champion India was expected to assess the conditions, cope well and gain positive cues that might hold it in good stead during February and March next year.

A cursory glance at the ensuing statistics tell a tale of a tour that has gone horribly wrong unless of course M. S. Dhoni’s men can turn it around in the subsequent two Tests. Only Dhoni (272 runs), Virat Kohli (291) and Mohammad Shami (11 wickets) have had a reasonably good stint while the rest have flattered to deceive.

Much was expected of openers Rohit Sharma (145 runs) and Shikhar Dhawan (81) but the duo was inconsistent and that caused Kohli’s elevation atop the batting tree. The middle-order — Suresh Raina (84), Ajinkya Rahane (51) and Ambati Rayudu (57) — found runs to be a rare commodity and that is frustrating for a squad that no longer has the services of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh. The trio is now busy chasing comeback dreams.

Ravindra Jadeja (145) scored a few, but like R. Ashwin (1 wicket), the Saurashtra all-rounder (4) struggled to make an impression with his spin. The two though did put their acclaimed batting peers to shame with their match-saving effort in Auckland. The rest of the bowlers offered no succour and struggled against a prolific Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson.

Ishant Sharma and Ashwin haven’t yet left a firm imprint as leaders of the pace and spin wings while crossing the seas and Dhoni may well have thought about Zaheer Khan, who has been overlooked in limited overs cricket.

India’s losses in South Africa was the direct outcome of a much superior opposition and nothing much could have been read into that, but seen in tandem with the defeats in New Zealand, it reflects the return of an old malady — of being poor travellers. Much hope has been invested in a team brimming with youth and with hardly a year left for the World Cup there is not much scope for a complete make-over.

To make matters worse, India’s immediate trysts in coloured clothing involve twin stints in Bangladesh — Asia Cup and ICC World Twenty20 — and in those skirmishes, the batting will surely prosper in sub-continental conditions. That will confound Dhoni and the think-tank’s ability to arrive at a sane judgement about those, who can render adequate and potent service when the World Cup dawns in Australia and New Zealand.

Currently a heavy burden has been placed on Kohli and Dhoni to anchor a chase or post a winning total overseas and this over-dependence does not augur well. It is time that Rohit, Dhawan and Raina prove that they have it in them to score merrily abroad while Rahane, who earned his stripes in South Africa, has to show that he has it in him to make a seamless transition back and forth between Tests and limited overs cricket.

Men of eminence ranging from Dilip Vengsarkar to Rahul Dravid have sought an opportunity for Cheteshwar Pujara to reveal his ability in ODIs. However, the Saurashtra batsman has been stereotyped as a longer-version player. On the bouncy and seamer-friendly terrain of Australia and New Zealand, a technically correct player can prove handy and the selectors may do well to dwell upon Pujara's prospects in ODIs.

The tour to England in June and the year-end visit to Australia will offer more opportunities to tweak the team composition but at the same time, a squad in flux is not a good omen while looking at the World Cup. There is no mistaking the talent in the ranks but somehow innate potential and the feel-good vibes generated while playing at home, have failed to materialise once the team slips through the immigration gates of foreign airports.

It is a malaise that has to be eradicated and the selectors need to ponder about whether it is prudent to shut the door on men like Yuvraj, Gambhir and Zaheer. The Ranji season too has drawn to a close and the five wise men should also wonder about those who have excelled in India's premier cricket tournament. Whatever be the nature of the tinkering, they have to factor in the limited time at India’s disposal in the lead-up to the World Cup besides drawing inferences from Dhoni’s famous gut-feel and as to what he prefers as his ideal eleven.

Much has been written about India's quest for an all-rounder, who lends balance, but when a seam all-rounder like Stuart Binny got just one match and one over in New Zealand, it does raise a few questions.

The Indian think-tank and the selectors need to be clear in their mind about the personnel they want while staring at a horizon in which the World Cup looms large in conditions that favour pace.