The great Indian search continues

S.DINAKAR

IT'S the 'Great Indian Search.' For quality Test openers, a genuine all-rounder, and an efficient wicket-keeper batsman.

Some might even call this the 'Great Indian puzzle,' given the rather mysterious additions and omissions over the last few years.

And despite the occasional glimmer of hope, several pieces of the jigsaw are still missing. However, things might just be getting better.

Shiv Sundar Das' compact ways at the crease and his innings building skills at the top of the order promise much for the future, and if nursed with care, Sanjay Bangar might just be the all-rounder India has been seeking all along.

Wicket-keeping still causes concern and the young man in question here, Deep Dasgupta, quite impressive as Das' opening partner in Tests, has clearly disappointed with the big gloves.

Das' recent hundred in the Nagpur Test against Zimbabwe revealed the little Indian is in right touch. The Orissa lad has a lot going for him as a Test match opener.

He is sure in his feet movement within the crease while countering the pacemen, and knows where the off-stump is. Das puts away the loose deliveries ruthlessly - he has a cracking cover-drive in his repertoire and can pull and clip with disdain. Against the spinners, he is swift on his feet.

The little man's greatest asset is his temperament and among the many impressed with Das' approach and attitude was Sunil Gavaskar, who was quick to impart his words of wisdom to the youngster.

Das now has 1202 runs from 18 Tests at 40.06 (two hundreds, nine fifties), and these are, in fact, fine figures for an opening batsman still in his early days in international cricket. Das' commitment and his willingness to learn make him special.

Actually, Sadagopan Ramesh's record isn't bad either, despite endless debates about his footwork or the lack of it - 1367 runs in 19 Tests at 39 (two hundreds, eight fifties) but it is a career that went wrong when least expected. First, a back injury forced him to pull out of the crucial South African tour and then his domestic form came as a huge let down.

Ironically, Ramesh had a fine tour of Sri Lanka, where truth to tell, he appeared even more assured than Das. The Tamil Nadu southpaw produced 223 runs in the three-Test series, and then decided to take the 'injury break.'

In South Africa, Deep Dasgupta relished his role as the make-shift opener in the first two Tests, the left-handed Connor Williams produced a neat effort in the second innings of the unofficial match at Durban, and when England arrived here, Ramesh's name was missing from the Test squad.

Then, his forgettable run for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy - the left-hander had just one century in seven games - dented his comeback plans. A pity since Ramesh and Das were developing into a reliable pair. The man to make the most of Ramesh's absence was Deep Dasgupta...we will get back to the Bengal player later.

Among the other specialist openers around, Baroda's Connor Williams, with his short back-lift and no frills approach, is not someone to be discounted, and Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer can still make up for lost time. Jaffer, an elegant player, hardly received a fair run against the Proteas at home in early 2001.

However, the front-runner is Delhi's Gautam Gambhir, in prolific form this season. The young left-hander is running hot these days, with his stroke-filled double hundred for Board President's eleven against Zimbabwe on the flat Vijayawada track thrusting him into the limelight.

Now the Zimbabwe attack is limited and bigger tests await Gambhir whose tendency to play away from his body, and opening the face of the blade, might land him in trouble on seaming wickets. But then, he is an infinitely better bet than someone like Devang Gandhi, so cruelly exposed in Australia. Railways' Amit Pagnis, in fine nick this season, might also be in the selectors' mind.

Not to forget Mumbai's young Vinayak Mane, perhaps the best equipped technically - he plays close to his body - among the contenders, though he doesn't quite have the runs to back him this season. Gambhir and Mane delighted against England under-19 last season, and who knows, they might walk out for India some day.

Sanjay Bangar is an opener for the strong Railways outfit, but for his beautifully paced hundred at Nagpur, in only his second Test, he came in at No. 7. However, it is as that 'elusive' all-rounder that India is looking at Bangar and one hopes he doesn't turn a batsman who can bowl.

He has it in him to be a useful support seamer, and if he can add a yard of pace, Bangar could lend the side balance. When the Railwayman is buzzing, he takes the ball away from the right-hander, and can share the new ball, if the team-management decides on three spinners. This is the flexibility an all-rounder provides.

Batting will remain his stronger flank though and Bangar is a cool customer at the crease, seldom ruffled by situations. His epic double hundred against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals, reflected his ability to shoulder responsibility, always a welcome sign.

He can also produce some sizzling strokes, leaning into those off-drives against the paceman, and dancing down the track to the spinners. Indeed, Bangar has arrived with a bang.

Bangar is a cricketer who doesn't give away much on the field in terms of body language - this doesn't suggest he is trying any less harder. In contrast Reetinder Singh Sodhi, bubbles with enthusiasm, often shouting words of encouragement.

Sodhi, whose 17 ODIs have fetched him 279 runs (ave. 27.90, strike rate 73.80), can be belligerent with the willow, but the Sardar's bowling, lacking in pace and a persistent line, is not much of a threat, at least at the Test level. However, none tries harder than Sodhi, and it is this tigerish resolve that coach John Wright admires in him - "Sodhi is a cricketer with the heart of a lion."

The gutsy Punjab cricketer, plagued by injuries this season, still has a future in the ODIs, but might find himself engaged in a battle for a slot with Bangar. In Tests, we don't have to look beyond Bangar.

Robin Singh (2336 runs and 69 wickets from 136 ODIs) was over-looked in his prime for Tests, when he could operate at a sharp pace, making the ball climb. When he finally received 'a Test look-in' in the late 90s, he was essentially, a batsman, who could also bowl stump to stump at a reduced speed. In other words, he was now just a utility man, cut out for the ODIs. Clearly an opportunity lost.

Still on all-rounders, two of the biggest let downs in recent times have been Sunil Joshi and Ajit Agarkar, with the latter just averaging 7.81 in 11 Tests with the bat, ridiculously low, for someone projected as an all-rounder.

Joshi, his best knock being a 92 against the lowly Bangladesh, is slightly better off at 20.70 from 15 Tests, however, he emerged as a bowler who could chip in with the bat. Joshi's left-arm spin has fallen away in recent times. Agarkar is still incisive on his day, but extremely inconsistent.

Pit their performances against the likes of Ravi Shastri (3830 runs and 151 wickets from 80 Tests) and Manoj Prabhakar (1600 runs and 96 wickets from 39 Tests) and it's a 'no contest.' Shastri and Prabhakar did make a huge difference to the Indian side, though the fact was not always recognised. And let's not bring the genius of Kapil Dev for any comparisons here!

The wicket-keepers are the heart of any side. Sadly, India has come up woefully short here in recent times. More precisely after Nayan Mongia fell from grace.

Now, keeping is a specialist job, and if a wicket-keeper is a useful batsman as well, then he does provide the team with options. Fielding a batsman-keeper is a definite gamble.

Let's journey right back to the glory days of Syed Kirmani (2759 runs and 198 victims in 88 Tests) here. Kiri bhai was invaluable, classy with the gloves, and innovative with the willow. Lightning quick standing up to the famed spin trio, and thriving under crisis at the crease with his 'slash drive.'

After Kirmani, Kiran More (1285 runs and 130 victims in 49 Tests), a spunky customer, whose combative instincts surfaced during crunch times, continued the tradition. Then Mongia arrived on the scene.

With 'soft hands' and effortless gathering, Mongia was quite superb against the spinners, to Anil Kumble's fizzy brand of spin in particular. And when he had to double up as an opener, he surprised many with a big hundred against Glenn McGrath & co in the one-off Delhi Test, 1996.

However, in the subsequent years, his attitude came under scrutiny and the fact that his name figured in the match-fixing scandal didn't help matters either. The Baroda cricketer was cleared, but the damage had been done.

Mongia (1442 runs and 107 victims in 44 Tests) is still the best wicket-keeper batsman in the land, but the team-management doesn't appear keen on him (the reasons are shrouded in mystery).

In his absence, several aspirants have come and gone. M.S.K. Prasad promised briefly but his 'keeping was more flashy than safe, and his batting not more than ordinary. Saba Karim, making a last ditch comeback, went back a shattered man, his left eye permanently damaged by a snorter from Kumble in Dhaka.

Vijay Dahiya did enjoy a couple of memorable moments with the willow in the ODIs, but his 'keeping never really inspired confidence. To add to his woe, he struggled with injuries.

And Sameer Dighe paid the price for two bad Tests with the gloves - against the Aussies in Chennai, and Lanka, in Colombo. To his credit, Dighe pulled off that little series winning knock at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, and then batted pugnaciously in Zimbabwe.

He was forgiven by the selectors too for his lapses at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, and flew to South Africa for the Test series, but a pulled muscle cut short his tour. The man to benefit most from Dighe's misfortune was Dasgupta - yes, we'll get back to him - who now figured in the Tests and in the process found himself a lifeline - his batting.

In the event, the decision to get Dasgupta to open the innings was a well thought one by the team-management. The Bengal lad, blessed with sound temperament, batted within his limitations, played straight for most part and even managed to save the second Test for India, along with Rahul Dravid.

And when England arrived in Mohali for the first Test, Dasgupta responded with a battling hundred, his maiden one in Tests. However, the Bengal cricketer's shocking display with the gloves against Zimbabwe has undone his good work as an opener. Haryana's Ajay Ratra took over for the ODIs; he is a cheeky customer at the crease, yet his 'keeping is good only in parts. On the positive side, he loves the sniff of a battle.

If Dasgupta elevates his 'keeping standards, he could become precious for India, however, he might have a long haul ahead of him.

Is Gujarat's young Parthiv Patel the long-term answer? He stays low, allows the ball to ease into his gloves, and goes for catches. Parthiv is an attacking southpaw at the top of the order as well.

Strong sides have options and are resilient. And they have the right openers, all-rounders and wicket-keeper.