SECOND LINE TAKES CHARGE

G. VISWANATH

ON the eve of the third league match against England at The Oval, India's captain Sourav Ganguly was asked by a very senior cricket correspondent of The Times, London, about the likely nucleus of the Indian team for the World Cup in South Africa. The correspondent who must have reported international cricket for over four decades, mentioned Yuveraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif as up and coming stars of Indian cricket.

Ganguly had not removed his pads after a second knock in the nets. He folded his hands, paused for a while and said: "Well, these boys (Yuveraj, Kaif and Dinesh Mongia) have blended very well with the seniors in the team. It's been a very good dressing room for the last 18 months. But one never knows. We have so much talent in India that anything can happen from now until the World Cup."

The Indian captain was not trying to exaggerate one bit, but just trying to convey that there could be latent talent that could surface at any time in India, the cases in point being Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh. Ganguly has, since he became India's captain, backed budding talents and given them a long rope. There have been several instances of his having fought with the national selectors with regard to the selection of players.

When Yuveraj Singh made a cracking 84 against Australia in the ICC knockout championship at the Nairobi Gymkhana in October 2000, Ganguly was mightily impressed with the Punjab lefthander's approach to batting. He publicly said that Yuveraj was the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket after Sachin Tendulkar.

Since then Yuveraj has remained in the news for the right as well as the wrong reasons. He followed his brilliant assault on the Australian bowlers with a 41 against South Africa. Yuveraj showed great promise and was hailed as a batsman who would fit the bill in limited-over internationals.

He was the rising star, so to say. But what followed was a series of failures, his highest in the next 14 innings being 34 against Zimbabwe at Sharjah. Then a 98 not out against Sri Lanka at Colombo redeemed the reputation he had made for himself in Kenya. His form dropped again in South Africa which forced the selectors not to include him in the home series against England.

There was no doubt that Yuveraj had tremendous potential. "He has the special quality to win matches on his own," coach John Wright had said in South Africa last October. Yuveraj worked on his game at the time England was visiting India, the results of which were seen in the Duleep Trophy. The selectors could not ignore his claims thereafter. He was recalled for the last two matches against Zimbabwe against whom he scored 80 not out in Hyderabad and starred in the big partnership with Dinesh Mongia in Guwahati.

There were more rewards for Yuveraj. He was sent to South Africa with the India 'A' team and thereafter to the West Indies for the one-day series. Yuveraj has looked a little more dependable in his second innings, his overall showing in the NatWest Trophy triseries putting his talent and potential in perspective.

In fact his batting was so consistent that the spotlight was on him right from the opening match against England at Lord's where he forged a big stand with Rahul Dravid. His showing in the next match against Sri Lanka on a seaming pitch was even better.

Yuveraj's scores were 64 not out, 31, 40, 37, 5 and 8 but the left-hander reserved his best for the final at Lord's, where the sheer ambience inspired him to lift his performance to new heights. Before the NatWest Trophy, Yuveraj had an aggregate of 664 runs in 33 matches. He has added 254 to it to make it 918 from 40 matches.

Another young gun to fire was Mohammad Kaif. When he came to England he was very much a rookie, having played just 11 matches. He was guaranteed a place in the team because the tour selectors had decided to play seven specialist batsmen, leaving Venkatsai Laxman in the reserves. This move paid off.

Batsmen sent out to bat at No. 7 seldom get opportunities to make a big score. Kaif's notable performance until he constructed his magnum opus 87 was a 44-ball 38 against Sri Lanka at the Oval. He had employed the horizontal shots effectively to put away the three Sri Lankan seamers, Chaminda Vaas, Nuwan Zoysa and Dilhara Fernando.

It is an achievement by itself for the three - Yuveraj, Dinesh Mongia and Kaif - to have made the tour selectors include them in the XI. That Kaif and Yuveraj joined forces at a critical time against England in a Cup final and outwitted the home team must be acknowledged as one of the finest deeds in the history of one-day internationals.

These are early days yet for them. They have shown the calmness and temperament that are necessary virtues to succeed at the highest level of the game.

Kaif has always given the impression of being a batsman who works on his game. He made his Test debut against South Africa and has since made 141 runs in four Tests, whereas Yuveraj has not been able to convince the selectors to give him the big break.

Yuveraj would have been retained for the Test series too in England had he not damaged the little finger of his right hand while fielding in the final of the NatWest Trophy. By making the selectors retain them for the entire tour, Kaif and Mongia have now given themselves an outside chance of playing in the Test matches. If Mongia does so he will be making his debut. "They have to make a place for themselves in the team. Where is the place for him (Yuveraj)?" asked Ganguly.

Without naming anyone, Ganguly said that the middle order was packed and that the youngsters' time would come. What Ganguly was referring to was the strong middle order in Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Venkatsai Laxman and himself. The likes of Virender Sehwag, Yuveraj, Mongia and Kaif will grow in international cricket with the seniors to guide them.

Given the breaks at the right time the young blood have grabbed the chances and proved their worth. They are also a big asset to the side when it comes to fielding. Yuveraj has been exceptional at square point and Kaif willing to throw himself anywhere to prevent the ball from speeding to the boundary.

What is certain now is that Yuveraj and Kaif will be an integral part of India's campaign at the World Cup next February.