The return of Tendulkar and Mongia

A time to smile for Sachin Tendulkar.-V. GANESAN

It would have MADE SENSE to pick Robin Uthappa, particularly since Sachin Tendulkar is returning from an injury. Uthappa could have been a cover for him, given the fact that the opening slot is not a long-term option for skipper Rahul Dravid, writes S. DINAKAR.

The Indians need to rediscover winning ways in the Colombo tri-nation ODI series. The Men in Blue stumbled in the Caribbean. They need to get their act together before the next trip to the West Indies, for World Cup 2007.

The focus has to be on putting together the best possible team for the premier ODI competition. The process of identifying the right cricketers should be done in right earnest. The selectors and the team management need to approach the task with wisdom and foresight.

The comeback of the 29-year-old Dinesh Mongia in the India squad for the competition in Sri Lanka, from August 14 to 29, has to be seen in this context. Are the selectors looking ahead?

Mongia's form with Leicestershire and his often useful left-arm spin bowling were major factors in his selection, according to selection panel chief Kiran More.

Yet, by dropping promising opener Robin Uthappa, the selectors might have sent the wrong message to emerging cricketers. In the chances that have come his way, Uthappa has done his cause no harm. Sadly, the selectors might have dented the confidence of a young cricketer.

It would have made sense to pick Uthappa, particularly since Sachin Tendulkar is returning from a shoulder surgery. Uthappa could have been a cover for Tendulkar, given the fact that the opening slot is neither the right one nor a long-term option for skipper Rahul Dravid.

The side lacks a genuine left-arm spinner, and Mongia's bowling, despite improvement, might not measure up to the team's needs. In any case, Yuvraj Singh, an automatic choice in the XI, can always chip in with a few overs of left-arm spin in times of need. However, recalling Anil Kumble would have been an infinitely better solution, if indeed, the selectors desired a spinner who can turn the ball away from the right-hander. Kumble, without question, is India's premier bowler, pace or spin.

The sheer intensity of his bowling, his mastery over the fundamentals, and the ability to bring in subtle changes, enable him to create the kind of pressure the Indian bowlers failed to build during the 4-1 drubbing in the ODI series in the Caribbean. Even on those occasions when he does not strike, Kumble can put the batsmen under considerable stress with his persistence, enabling the others to make inroads.

Dinesh Mongia.-BIJOY GHOSH

Kumble and Harbhajan, considering that the pitches in the Caribbean have slowed down apart from having an element of double pace, can combine effectively in the World Cup. Harbhajan is a lesser bowler without Kumble; despite a creditable economy rate of 3.91, the off-spinner scalped just three batsmen in five games in the West Indies.

On the odd occasion Kumble tends to stray down the leg-side. But he is someone who can operate with great precision, too. His age, 35, should not be held against this influential cricketer. If not the quickest on his feet, Kumble remains a safe fielder. The champion leg-spinner has to be included soon. The ideal ODI sides have been a blend of experience and youth.

The Indian pacemen do need to regroup after the pounding they received in the Caribbean. Irfan Pathan, whose economy rate was an unsatisfactory 5.59, clearly struggled. According to the legendary Dennis Lillee and former India paceman T. A. Sekar, who have spent considerable time with Pathan at the MRF Pace Foundation, the bowler has to re-work his action. In the West Indies, Pathan's bowling arm came from behind his right ear. The rotation of his arm before release thus could not be straight and this affected his direction, speed and control.

Since the Indian game-plan often revolves around Pathan's early strikes, it is absolutely vital that the bowler gets his technique corrected. S. Sreesanth (economy rate 5.47) and Munaf Patel (5.80) too proved expensive in the Caribbean, while left-armer Rudra Pratap Singh has suffered a form slump.

At least in the ODIs — the pacemen showed some improvement in the Test series — the Indian pace attack was found wanting. It is here that Zaheer Khan comes into the picture. He is a senior paceman who knows a thing or two about handling tough situations, and his experience could prove valuable for India in the days ahead. The left-armer's speed might have dropped, but he remains a compelling seam bowler, who, at this stage of his career, can be more effective in the shorter version of the game.

Zaheer, among the wickets for Gloucestershire, has been overlooked. R. P. Singh will have to consider himself fortunate to have received the nod. Importantly, India requires bowlers at the `Death' who can achieve reverse swing.

Team India's batting is its stronger flank. However, the pacing of its innings in the Caribbean came in for criticism. The Indian batting worked in fits and starts. While flexibility in the batting order can often surprise the opponent, India needs to provide its top batsmen consistent spots so that their role definitions are clear and they get into the groove mentally. At the moment, there is far too much reliance on the likes of M. S. Dhoni for quick runs. The Indians need to work the ball around more and sharpen their running between the wickets. The Indian fielding was vibrant in Pakistan and in the home ODI series. In the West Indies, there was a marked decline in standards. It is fielding that often forces mistakes from the batsmen.

Sri Lanka will be hard to beat, while South Africa, even without a few of its key players, could prove competitive. The spinners should call the shots in the day/night games at the Premadasa Stadium, a Lankan bastion. The day matches on the often lively Sinhalese Sports Club pitch could see the pacemen making their presence felt.

Finally, there is the Sourav Ganguly question. The former India captain, picking up the pieces in English county cricket, is going through a testing phase. Yet, it would be premature to rule out his chances. Come to think of it, he is a far more influential cricketer than a utility man like Mongia.