What's ailing our Test team

Are the Indian weaknesses in Tests — an attack dependent on specific conditions, a still-not-settled TOP ORDER and an ageing middle- order — hidden in the shorter version of the game wonders, S. DINAKAR.

India is on a roll in the ODIs. The Men in Blue are vibrant in the abbreviated form of the game — high on confidence and low on sympathy for the opposition.

It is a side where youthful energy blends wonderfully well with experience. It is versatile, innovative unit with options and depth, which can surprise and sting.

Team India has consistently bucked the odds, roared back from the brink. It has held firm under pressure, has been resilient on the chase.

At last count — including the match against England in Kochi — the side had won eight successive ODIs, nailed a world record 15 straight chases.

In whites though, India has displayed a shocking lack of incision and spine in two critical Test matches this year — the third Tests in Karachi and Mumbai.

India's stunning success in ODIs should not distract our attention from the side's shortcomings in a more important form of the game — Test cricket. Despite World Cup 2007 looming large, Test cricket is the `Real Thing.'

The side has glaring inadequacies in bowling, while the tendency of most batsmen to play too many strokes too soon is hurting the team. India is succumbing to stressful situations.

Are the Indian weaknesses in Tests — an attack dependent on specific conditions, a still-not-settled top order and an ageing middle-order — hidden in the shorter version of the game?

The Indian pacemen's lack of air speed and the inability to hit the deck enabled Pakistan to construct a match-winning 599 for seven declared in the second innings in Karachi. The induction of S. Sreesanth and Munaf Patel added a dose of pace to the Indian attack against England, but then batting let the side down.

The tame manner of the surrender sent the wrong signals. Pursuing 607 against Pakistan, India lasted just 58.4 overs at the National Cricket Stadium. Out of the side's total of 265, a defiant Yuvraj Singh contributed 122. A piece of statistic that doesn't speak much for the rest.

And in the final Test at the Wankhede Stadium, a virtually second string English attack embarrassed the host, romping to an unexpected 212-run victory.

India, with nine wickets, needed to bat out the final day to secure a draw and a 1-0 series victory. The innings, very disappointingly, lasted just 48.2 overs. There was a measure of seam movement for the pacemen in Karachi and the ball spun in the later stages in Mumbai. And the Indian batsmen let themselves down in sharp contrast to those stirring Indian fightbacks of the 70s and 80s.

Is the influence of ODI cricket, too many strokes by batsmen, the pacemen relying more on inswing and the spinners less on flight, harming the side in Tests? Is the Test team unable to close out a game from winning situations?

Dilip Vengsarkar was a key element of some sensational second innings turnarounds by India. And he was pained at the collapse in Mumbai. Says the former Indian captain, "I could not see that spirit to stay and fight. They were ambitious in shot-making. In these situations you need to play out session by session." Vengsarkar has been `there' before. He knows.

Vengsarkar acknowledges the capabilities of Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, who has made significant strides as a batsman, and recognises the potential in Wasim Jaffer.

He, however, adds that apart from skipper Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, the other batsmen cannot be considered `reliable' in all conditions. To make matters worse, form slumps and injuries have cast a shadow over Tendulkar's career.

The side was increasingly dependent on Anil Kumble & Co. to rescue it from trouble; the reliance on the lower order presented the much-celebrated line-up in poor light.

The Indians seem increasingly vulnerable to persistent bowling on or outside the off-stump on pitches offering pacemen a measure of assistance. And someone like Sehwag is running into serious problems against short-pitched balls from the quicks.

Vengsarkar believes the Indians are not getting enough time to correct faults that might have crept into their game. "Actually we are playing too much cricket. The cricketers are not machines. There should be a proper break of three to four months in the international calendar where the players can take part in domestic cricket and work on their game."

Under the circumstances, it was a bold decision by India to field five bowlers in the second and third Tests against England at the expense of Mohammed Kaif. And it is a debatable move. Kaif had made a fighting 91 in the Nagpur Test which went a long way in India saving the match. By omitting him, India was not just depriving Kaif from building on the momentum but leaving its `batting' flanks exposed. Leg-spinner Piyush Chawla sent down 14.1 overs and conceded 53 runs for a lone wicket at the very end of the Mohali Test and his contribution in an otherwise thumping India victory was marginal. Can India afford to go in with just five batsmen?

"No" says Vengsarkar. "I agree we do not have adequate bowling unless we prepare specific wickets to suit our bowling. But the fifth bowler is bound to be under-bowled." While Anil Kumble continues to defy age and form fluctuations, Harbhajan Singh has been inconsistent. Despite promise, the pace attack stills wears an unsettled look. The disappointing standard of India's close-in catching has also hurt the team's chances. "We have not developed specialist catchers close to the wicket, especially in areas like silly point and short-leg," says Vengsarkar. Someone like Gautam Gambhir who possesses the agility, reflexes and the anticipation to hold catches in these positions has lost his way as a batsman.

Was Dravid's fatal decision to field in Mumbai influenced by the fact that India had a batsman less and a bowler — a paceman — more? The Indian tactics in Mumbai did come under the scanner. Off-spin great Erapalli Prasanna says the five-bowler theory is fine. "What is the logic behind playing six batsmen? You just cannot tell which batsmen will succeed. Similarly, you cannot predict which bowlers will fail. So you have some cover."

The Indian bowling, the pace attack in particular, suffers between the 30th over and the time the second new ball becomes available, he says. "They need help from the wicket. They are not able to extract something extra from the track. You saw that in Karachi."

Indeed, Pakistan recovered from 39 for six during the first session in Karachi to romp home by 341 runs. "In the ODIs, the pacemen are able to sustain their performance in say two spells in a maximum of 10 overs. In Test cricket, they are struggling in their third or fourth spells. In the second innings, their speeds drop drastically, and they bowl at around 125 kmph."

This area, which includes better use of the old ball and reverse swing, has been addressed to an extent with the induction of Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, who hold out much hope for the future. Prasanna also dwells on an aspect that made Kapil Dev such a fine bowler even on sub-continental pitches. "After the ball lost its shine, he would come in and bowl cutters."

Former Indian batsman Ashok Mankad, an astute cricketing mind, says Irfan Pathan is not yet ready as an all-rounder for India to consider a five-bowler formula. "We should pick four bowlers and they should be two pacemen and two spinners. Spin is still our strength and we must rely more on it. We also need to unearth new spinners. What happens five years hence? What happens after Kumble and Harbhajan?" The development of Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni's batting is absolutely essential for India to consider entering a contest with five bowlers.

Turning his attention to batting, he says the top-order should not be tampered with. "We require to build a solid opening pair. We have compromised a lot with the openers in the past and it has hampered our progress."

Dravid and Greg Chappell have formed a strong captain-coach partnership. However, the selectors and the team-management should come up with a clear-cut answer on the Sourav Ganguly issue.

Particularly during times when questions about "having different yardsticks for different cricketers" are being raised.

* * * VERSATILE ODI TEAM A versatile unit with explosive shot-makers.

A brilliant fielding side, particularly in the circle, fuelled by youthful exuberance and energy.

A bold, flexible and innovative unit with matchwinners. Holds firm under pressure, has an outstanding record on the chase this season.

Multi-dimensional cricketers provide the team options.

Areas to improve on: Lacks pacemen who can consistently deliver at the `Death.'

The pacing of the innings, on occasions, is awry when setting a target.