MS Dhoni's candid confession that the Indian team was still looking for an all-rounder to fill in the No 7 slot has not come a moment too soon. As the ODI team prepares for the World Cup in real earnest it is imperative that the crucial slot is filled. The value of an all-rounder as different from a utility or bits and pieces cricketer cannot be overemphasized.
In four successive campaigns from 1979 to 1992 the team had no worries, thanks to the presence of the peerless Kapil Dev. For good measure in a couple of those campaigns he had Ravi Shastri and Manoj Prabhakar for company.
In 1996, Prabhakar and Ajay Jadeja were assigned the double duties while three years later Ajit Agarkar and Robin Singh were picked for the dual roles. None of the four really did a commendable job with the result that in 2003, with no ubiquitous player around, the team generally took the field with seven batsmen and four bowlers with a couple of batsmen sharing the ten overs. It worked like a dream.
For one thing, the extra batsman meant that the side regularly ran up big totals which were beyond the reach of most teams. Secondly, there were a lot of options for skipper Sourav Ganguly as far as the bit bowlers were concerned in himself, Yuvraj Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Dinesh Mongia.
In the absence of a suitable candidate for the all-rounder's slot, perhaps, the time has come for the selectors to pick a squad that consists only of batsmen and bowlers with some of the former doubling up as part-time bowlers. I have always felt that Irfan Pathan is still the best bet to occupy the ubiquitous player's slot, but it appears that the Kris Srikkanth and his co-selectors are not suitably impressed by his record which to be candid speaks for itself – 1368 runs at an average of almost 23 with five half centuries and a healthy strike rate of nearly 78 allied to 152 wickets at an average of just under 30, with four 4-wicket hauls and one 5-wicket haul from 107 matches.
None of the other claimants tried out as utility players in the last couple of years – his elder brother Yusuf, Ravindra Jadeja or Abhisekh Nayar – has anything to match this record. Among the newcomers only Ravichandran Ashwin seems to be shaping up as a future prospect but at the moment it is doubtful whether he can don this double role successfully in a mega event like the World Cup.
If Irfan is not destined for a comeback then I feel the selectors will do well in going in for the seven batsmen and four bowler policy as far as the final eleven is concerned. After all, it worked like a dream in South Africa in 2003 when the team made it to the title clash - their best result since the unforgettable triumph in 1983.
The playing of an extra batsman acts as an insurance against a top or middle order collapse and this time too, Dhoni has many options in the part time bowlers in Sehwag, Raina and Yuvraj. The ODI against Australia at Vishakapatnam on Wednesday underlined the wisdom of this strategy.
Taking in their stride Cameron White's blitzkrieg and a tough target of 290 the Indians finally won with a degree of comfort despite a hesitant start. The other option is the five batsman and six bowler policy. This composition could be a cause for trepidation.
At the back of the mind the team management knows that they are a batsman short and a collapse could well settle the match once and for all. In that case, having the extra bowler could mean little for even a well balanced bowling line-up could still have difficulty in defending a rather inadequate total. On the other hand, the extra bowler could come in handy in dismissing the opposition for next to nothing and making the batsmen's job that much easier. But, if this strategy is adopted the bowlers should have at least a sizeable total as a back-up.
It would constitute a bold and adventurous move, but given the conventional wisdom of the Indian team management they are unlikely to go in too often for the six plus five theory too often and prefer to play up to their strength by adopting the seven plus four policy.