The Indian batsmen are to blame

ENGLAND, without question, were the moral winners of the six-match one-day international (ODI) series. With an inexperienced team, against a much stronger side on paper, and away from home, the Englishmen managed to level the series.

We now have to face several harsh truths. The World Cup is barely a year away and India has to act fast. But do they have the right men for the right job?

The Indian bowlers have often come in for criticism, but as we saw in this series, it was the batsmen, who let the side down time and again, succumbing to pressure situations.

In fact, the Indians must be among the worst teams chasing a target in the world, and come apart at the crunch with unfailing regularity. They have little idea about pacing an innings, such a crucial element of ODI batting.

The Indians either get the runs at seven an over, often in the early stages, or struggle to pick up three an over, often at the climactic phase of the contest. This sharp slump in the scoring-rate is often baffling, and it is quite clear that many of our players simply do not understand the nuances of one-day cricket.

There were several stages during the ill-fated run-chases in Cuttack, Delhi and Mumbai where just common sense batting was required from the Indians after a blistering start. They could not even manage that, and some of the dismissals were shocking.

Around run-a-ball with about six or seven wickets left in the last 10 to 15 overs should hardly bother an international side that boasts of a strong batting line-up. Unfortunately, our batsmen pressed the panic button.

It was clear from the series that the Indians still haven't learnt the art of rotating the strike, collecting those ones and twos that can prove so frustrating to any opposition. Instead, several of them went for the big shots and cut a sorry figure.

There is also a tendency to slow down things in the middle of an innings. The run-rate drops and the fielding side gradually grows in confidence, gets back into the game.

This is exactly what happened in Delhi and Mumbai, where India allowed England to sneak back into the contests. England not only won the matches in gripping finishes, but also levelled the series 3-3.

To be honest, the English attack was just about average, and in home conditions, things were loaded in favour of the Indian batsmen. Yet, they disappointed. The tame surrender to Ashley Giles' run-of-the-mill left-arm spin bowling in Delhi was particularly painful for the Indian supporters.

It is time the team-management sits down and has a frank discussion with the players. If India cannot overcome an inexperienced English team at home, then a lot has to be set right. Performances alone should count and reputations have no meaning if they are not backed by results.

Having witnessed the frequent Indian collapses when the pressure is on, this columnist has come to the view that it might not be a bad idea for India to go with seven specialist batsmen in ODIs.

There is a degree of risk involved since India will field just three bowlers, but it is well worth a try, considering that it is batting failure that has let the side down time and again. Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Hemang Badani and Mohammed Kaif may be able to bowl 20 overs between them.

The failure of V.V.S. Laxman was especially disheartening for he has so much to offer to Indian cricket. At the moment he is grossly underachieving, but has the ability to survive this difficult phase.

With Rahul Dravid nursing a shoulder injury and Laxman dropped mid-way through the ODI series, the Indian middle-order lacked experience, and it was good see the selectors opting for youth in Dinesh Mongia, Badani and Kaif. They will surely benefit from the experience. There are lessons that can be learnt from defeats.

From an Indian perspective, the bright spot was the dashing stroke-play of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, the new opening pair. The two seemed to enjoy batting together and it was exciting stuff when they launched into the bowlers.

We expect heroics from Tendulkar, but Sehwag was a revelation. The Delhi lad has the rare gift of timing, and is a simple, uncomplicated player who loves to take the bowlers on.

Tendulkar and Sehwag have the makings of a very dangerous opening pair, and the team-management should stick with the two at the top of the order. Especially on flat tracks, where Sehwag can get away with his audacious strokes.

Incidentally, it was Ganguly's hamstring injury that provided Sehwag with an opportunity to open the innings in the third ODI in Chennai, and he grabbed the chance. Ganguly did bat well in the last two ODIs, but he was not able to see his team home.

Anil Kumble, who took over as captain in the Chennai ODI, was fairly impressive in the new role. India won the match and Kumble, apart from making timely bowling changes, operated well himself.

Among the other Indian bowlers, Javagal Srinath was quite superb in certain spells, while Ajit Agarkar was inconsistent. The best piece of bowling came from Harbhajan Singh in the last ODI and his spell was quite sensational really.

Harbhajan was under some pressure having been either 'rested or dropped' for a match and he responded to the challenge. Having seen him from his formative years, I firmly believe Harbhajan is a champion off-spinner and should be persisted with despite slight fluctuations in form. Overall, the Indian bowlers performed adequately on pitches that were essentially flat. And new stumper Ajay Ratra displayed some promise.

Yet, mopping up an innings is an area where they can improve and it was the failure to finish things off that basically cost India the Mumbai ODI. The team should take its chances. At the moment, the Indians do not seem to be doing that.