Rajan Bala

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To win, one cannot always play safe

If India are to win more home Test matches - which they must, as they have begun winning overseas - then the team needs to have the right balance according to the prevailing pitch and weather conditions. And, this implies that the team has to do away with the additional specialist batsman, at present a sort of safety clause from possible defeat.

The replacement has to be a bowling all-rounder or a specialist bowler, pace or spin.

The thought must have already crossed the minds of the national selectors headed by Dilip Vengsarkar and the captain, Anil Kumble. To see a visiting team like South Africa - whose batsmen are quite unfamiliar against quality spin bowling - hold their own and walk out of the first Test in Chennai with heads held high, and even look to surprise the home outfit in the subsequent two Tests, is not really within the script that has been written. Kumble's problem, as far as one can see, is to bell the cat and that is to tell one of the specialist batsmen that he has to sit out. Any winning team can do with two match-winning specialist bowlers, like Australia till recently, with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and depend on the other two specialist bowlers to provide the backup and to strike on any given day when the big two are very unlucky or off colour.

In contrast, the marauding West Indies under Clive Lloyd in the 80s, risked having an attack which lacked variety, but was lethal all the same with four venomous fast bowlers. They shared the workload and the wickets. The cinch was Lloyd had lost all faith in the efficacy of West Indies spin because of a disastrous Port of Spain debacle and was willing to settle for the gentle spin of Viv Richards and Larry Gomes in the hope of getting a wicket or two, and enable his fast bowlers to change ends and gain some rest.

Over the years - and one is going back over half a century - much has been said and written about how winning combinations inevitably found the right balance. Refer to Bradman's Invincibles in 1948 and after that to Hutton's superbly efficient Englishmen of the 50s. A reasonable student of Test cricket history and strategy would discover this quickly enough and rightly wonder why subsequent captains found themselves a specialist bowler or an all-rounder short when the thrust had to be made for victory.

Too long has Indian cricket at home consoled itself about the lack of penetration in its main bowlers, who have fallen short of expectations, and preferred to blame the pitches and the ground staff. The latest instance is the Chennai Test.

One, sometimes, is inclined to wonder when last the selection of the Indian playing XI was totally influenced by the winning factor (the primary objective) and other considerations were shown the door. Might sound like harsh criticism and a matter of questioning the integrity of some people. But somehow, of late, one cannot but think that things are not quite as they should be, even with someone like Kumble at the helm of affairs. Maybe it is not in his hands.

Explain how and why when Sachin Tendulkar is out of a Test match because of an injury, his cover is another batsman when there seems to be a strong case to leave out a regular specialist batsman - either Sourav Ganguly or V.V.S. Laxman - so that an all-rounder or specialist bowler can be accommodated in the playing XI? Then, there is already a specialist batsman, Yuvraj Singh among the reserve players. So, what is the explanation for the resurrection of Kaif?

The great teams are so used to winning and enjoy the whole process, that they are inflexible in their resolve and uncompromising in their selection. There have been winning teams with the brilliance of an all-rounder like Keith Miller or with the intelligence and utilitarian value of a Trevor Bailey, because they contributed to winning, though in contrasting ways. They fitted into a particular plan. Therefore, it has all to do with the attitude.

In fact, Indian cricket has to begin to believe that a drawn Test at home is a failure and therefore, excuses should not be trotted out. Maybe the problem is a fear of losing - deeply embedded in the Indian psyche — and that does not help. To win you have to be willing to lose occasionally. Ask the team that has won most of all, the Aussies…

Republished with permission from The Asian Age

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