Too many loose ends

It was a well-deserved honour for Anil Kumble, the new Test captain. In Ishant Sharma, India has a promising new fast bowler.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

If the Aussies have been able to consolidate and motor ahead, the fact that the side is a well-settled unit is a chief factor. India, on the other hand, has still not made up its mind on a lot of key issues ahead of the Test series in Australia, writes S. Dinakar.

Paradoxically, India appeared to be groping in the dark despite going up the Test ladder. The year 2007 was undeniably one of much success in Test cricket for India, but the side still hasn’t found answers to vexing questions on team composition.

If the Australians have been able to consolidate and motor ahead, the fact that the side is a well-settled unit is a chief factor. The wise men have shown foresight and every segment of the team is in harmony.

India, on the other hand, has still not made up its mind on a lot of key issues ahead of the Test campaign in Australia. A lack of vision has hurt the side.

Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik had formed an efficient right-handed pair of contrasts at the top of the order. The duo was immensely successful in South Africa and England. A few failures at home against Pakistan, and doubts have arisen about Karthik’s ability to open in Tests.

Ahead of a major series, it is vital not to break an opening combination; this hurts the rhythm and chemistry between two key men who have to cope with the new ball.

Karthik should have walked out with Jaffer in the final Test against Pakistan in Bangalore even though Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were injured and Gautham Gambhir got a look-in. Karthik is young and capable of handling the strain of opening and ’keeping if it is only for a Test.

Every element of the game is woven together and here we travel back to Newlands at the very beginning of the year where India suffered its biggest Test heart-break of the year.

The series against South Africa was in the balance at 1-1 and India stared at a phenomenal achievement. Ahead of the Test, there was intense churning in the Indian camp regarding the XI for the decider.

Sourav Ganguly had a dream series against Pakistan. Even his opponents applauded him.-AP

Virender Sehwag, out of form and down on confidence, was, after much debate, included as a middle-order batsman who could chip in with off-spin on a dry surface with cracks. The lone selector and the team-management blundered by omitting off-spinner Harbhajan on a surface that should have suited him; he could have cashed in on the footmarks created by left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan.

Jaffer and Karthik strung together a century plus stand in the first innings, but Sehwag, inexplicably, was pushed up the order in the second innings. He failed and India, also undone by some unimaginative, defensive batting by Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar against left-arm spinner Paul Harris, lost the plot. An opportunity to create history had come and gone. Subsequently, Sehwag was dumped from Tests.

Now the wheel has turned a full circle. Sehwag’s performances down under four years ago have influenced the selectors to include him in the squad for the four-Test series in Australia. What signal it sends to Karthik remains to be seen.

Moves are now afloat to get a non-specialist to open in the Boxing Day Test to create an additional middle-order slot. There are still question marks about Irfan Pathan making adequate strides as a Test bowler to merit a place in a three-man pace attack. And will India play five bowlers including an off-spinner?

Then there was the question of Munaf Patel. Still not fully fit in his mind or body, the paceman hobbled around in that eventful Test at Cape Town. How he was included in the XI for such a critical match is a mystery to this day. Then he made a Test comeback against Pakistan before the selectors told him to work on match fitness! If there were doubts about Munaf on this count, why was he playing Test cricket in the first place? The speedy V. R. V. Singh, a paceman with immense possibilities, has been strangely forgotten.

Now, to a happier story. After the disaster in Cape Town, India clinched a Test series in Bangladesh and then journeyed to England. A 1-0 series triumph meant India had won a Test series in Old Blighty after 21 years.

Openers Jaffer and Karthik, Sachin Tendulkar, stroking the ball majestically, and Sourav Ganguly, all timing and grace, shone with the bat.

It was the bowlers who clinched the series for India. Left-armer Zaheer was outstanding. He straightened or brought the ball into the right-hander at will. He swung the ball away from a length and line that made the batsmen play. The manner he operated from round the wicket indicated his versatility.

Another left-arm paceman, Rudra Pratap Singh, operated with increased pace and control. And he swung the ball. Santhakumaran Sreesanth chipped in too although he was nowhere near the perfect outswing bowler he was at the Wanderers where he bowled India to a rip-roaring first Test victory on South African soil. Sreesanth’s temperamental flare-ups clouded his thinking and made him a lesser bowler. Towards the end of the year, India appeared to have unearthed a promising paceman in the wiry Ishant Sharma, he of lively pace, movement from an off-stump line, and bounce.

This was an eventful year. Rahul Dravid, allegedly unhappy with the selection process on tours, quit captaincy. Circumstances forced that great visionary — the honest and straight-talking Greg Chappell — to put in his papers after the World Cup. In the country’s long cricket history, he was the only coach with courage and conviction to take on the system.

Anil Kumble, as level-headed and consistent as they come, was finally honoured with the captaincy. He skippered and bowled India to victory in New Delhi, in what proved to be the decisive Test of the series. It was India’s first home Test series victory over Pakistan in 27 years.

V. V. S. Laxman, under-rated and often unsung, conjured a key innings under pressure with M. S. Dhoni. It was an ordinary year for Dravid, but he managed to blunt the attack. At this phase of his career, Dravid could try a shorter back-lift.

The talented Yuvraj Singh dazzled in Bangalore, but it was the year of another left-hander. Sourav Ganguly became the first Indian southpaw to cross 6000 runs in Tests, going past 1000 runs for the year. More than the numbers, he batted with a heady combination of solidity and strokes. While being technically sound, he did not lose his flair. And he made runs when it counted.

What a comeback!