The luckiest man in Indian cricket

I wouldn't grudge Sourav Ganguly his luck, you shouldn't grudge anyone his, but I would be very keen to know if he realises that he is currently the luckiest man in Indian cricket. That isn't a crime but the great performers make the most of what comes their way and a lot of us, who have admired his batting over the years, would be disappointed if he did not.

His forthright statements, so refreshing in the mean-one-thing-say-one-thing style of pronouncements in Indian cricket, seem to acquire greater weight when they are backed by performance. Strictly speaking it should not be that way, for reality can have the voice of either a king or a beggar, but it is. And for that reason, among many others, I would like to see him score a ton of runs.

But there are more pressing reasons. In his current form, and in the weak selectorial efforts to cover up for it, he upsets the balance of the Indian team very substantially. In his most preferred team, he has the buffer of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar above him and V. V. S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag below him. That means India either need to play seven batsmen, a wicketkeeper and three bowlers or continue with the short-sighted and disastrous policy of sticking the sacrificial lamb up the top of the order. India can afford neither luxury.

In an ideal situation, India should play two openers, four middle-order players, a wicketkeeper and four bowlers. Each of those should walk into the side for his ability to perform a specific role. The moment such a balance gets upset, the team as a unit is handicapped and would require a substantial individual performance to overcome this shortcoming. But this should at best be a temporary or emergency situation and should only be allowed, really, on tour where an unforeseen situation could arise. But in India we seem quite happy to tinker around with combinations, put forward a sub-standard balance, because we do not want to take hard decisions. We have had a very consistent solution so far towards tough situations; turn your back and run as hard as you can.

With our batting, we need to take some tough decisions because the absence of a durable pair of openers is crippling. I know of no other side that volunteers to enter a relay competition with a lame runner. And then does that again, race after race, year after year. But for India to play two openers, one middle-order batsman has to drop out and we seem to regard that as the equivalent of scrapping the reservation policy in our education system. We don't do it when we must. If the interests of the side dictates that either Laxman or Sehwag, but not both, play so be it. But because of the comparisons that will get drawn with Ganguly, both must play. And therefore, one opener must sit out. Goodbye balance.

The alternative would be to tell Ganguly, and I hope they do that in the Test matches, that there will only be six batsmen in the side and that therefore, he must pull his weight with the bat. The moment you do that you allow yourself the option of picking the best wicketkeeper available, not the 'keeper who bats best. Today, India have to pick Deep Dasgupta not because he is the best wicketkeeper, which he isn't, but because among the basket of 'keepers he is best suited to open the batting. An unlikely qualification for a specialist job.

Dasgupta is a fine young man with a very sound head, and might one day even be good enough to become India's opener, but today he is being picked for the wrong reason. If you picked six batsmen then the wicketkeeper's batting skills would become a supplement, even if a valuable supplement, to his wicketkeeping skills which must come first. You don't pick a legspinner because he can bat or a number three because he can bowl unless there are two contenders with equal specialist skills. But we have no problems picking a lesser wicketkeeper because he can bat. And we have no problem dropping a specialist opener because we cannot take a hard decision in the middle-order.

There is one other area that Sourav Ganguly needs to be very very careful about. Along with the drop in his batting form in Test cricket, comes an alarming drop in his fitness. Indian cricket's biggest problem is its fitness and it is safe to say that a turnaround will not happen if the top 25 players in the country are not wedded to the idea of being the fittest 25 players in the country. But the captain has to show the way. 'March ahead my men' was never a worthy battle cry if it came from a drawing room.

For Sourav Ganguly to lead a revival of Indian cricket, he must show his willingness to try and become the fittest player in the side. He may not get there but if he puts in the miles, he can demand them from the others. If he doesn't, the fingers point back at him. The alternative is to let the fitness dog lie and continue to hope that an individual player produces a match-winning performance. As a winning strategy that is as effective as trying to navigate an ocean with a rubber tyre as a float.

Ganguly has a lot to offer to Indian cricket, not just in the one-day game where he leads the batting order with such class, but in Test matches as well. The question is: what is he willing to do for it? He doesn't have too much time left. He needs those runs quickly. I hope he gets them because he adorns the game when he does. And because we can play two openers and a wicketkeeper!