The World Cup is 86 days away. India, however, has just 10 days of cricket left to get its house in order. Worryingly, the build-up is less than ideal. More worryingly, the team composition is clear as mud at this moment, and questions proliferate: do you persevere with out of form seniors, or try in-form rookies?
India plays five ODIs against New Zealand at home this month, and five more against South Africa in January. The team also has two practice games against Australia and New Zealand, before it begins the World Cup campaign against Bangladesh on February 19.
For now, set aside the merits of playing five ODIs on the fast, bouncy pitches of South Africa just before starting a Cup campaign on sub-continental wickets – while the ODIs against the Proteas may not be ideal preparation for the Cup, winning the series in SA against a side that has traditionally dominated India at home (SA beat India 4-0, the last time we toured) will provide a big boost.
Irrespective of how the results are this time, it is already clear that Dhoni will return from this last serious engagement before the WC with more questions than answers – and he will have no time left to find the solutions.
The 2007 Example
India's build-up to the 2007 World Cup had been more systematic (and for now, ignore the fact that the results were disastrous). In 2006, Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell had started trying out youngsters in short bursts. Horses-for-courses and player rotation were the buzz words. The build-up culminated with two ODI series at home, against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. India beat both, and had a settled line-up heading to the West Indies.
This time, there hasn’t been a concerted effort to build towards the World Cup, if you go by the way the ODI fixtures have been planned. Let’s start with the opening slots.
Virender Sehwag is in fine form; he is an automatic choice. But who is his partner going to be? Candidates about, in Gautam Gambhir and M Vijay – and then there is Sachin Tendulkar, who will return to the ODI squad intent on one final WC swansong.
Tendulkar, however, has gone almost a year without playing an ODI – his last was in Gwalior where he belted that record setting double hundred. While there is no question of his abilities in this form of the game, you cannot help but wonder if it is wise to rest him for so long, and then bring him back straight into a World Cup.
There are two issues here. One is Sachin's own form – and given how crucial he can be, you want to give him some time to get himself back into one day mode. Now look at it from the team’s perspective: the entry or exit of any player involves subtle changes in strategy and tactics; when the player is of the caliber of Sachin, those changes can be close to seismic. Having Sachin return straight for the WC, thus, means the team has no time to plan revised strategies and test them out on the field of play.
Burgeoning Middle Order
Coming to Gautam Gambhir, after form and fitness problems all year, he is slowly regaining his touch with fifties against New Zealand, albeit in the Test format; more significantly, he has been named captain of the ODI squad to take on the Kiwis – a clear indication that he is very much in the selectors’ plans for the WC. With Tendulkar and Sehwag at the top of the order, Gambhir is likely to bat one-down, where he has thrived in the past.
The No. 3 slot is a crucial one. It has to be a player who can score quickly against both pace and spin; he has to have both aggression, to continue the momentum of the openers, and defensive abilities, in case of an early wicket. Gambhir has those abilities. Does he have the form? Not yet. This means the No. 3 slot is far from settled at this point.
In the middle, it's hard to imagine the World Cup squad without Yuvraj Singh. He’s likely to form the middle-order with Dhoni and Suresh Raina, who are No. 1 and No. 3 on the list of India’s leading ODI run makers since 2009.
But Yuvraj, like Gambhir, has had form and fitness problems. In his last 10 ODIs, he has made 229 runs at 25.44. If he comes into this star-studded Top Six, it could be at the expense of Virat Kohli, who is India’s leading run-maker this year — 761 runs at 44.76. So what do the selectors opt for – the reputation of Yuvraj or the burgeoning skills and form of the younger Kohli? Keep in mind that in times past, Yuvraj’s fielding was a clear differentiator between him and any other candidate – but that is not true any longer; thanks to his injuries he has not been able to field at his favorite point position in the recent past; against that, Kohli is an outstanding fielder both up close and in the deep.
Then there are the fringe players like Saurabh Tiwary, who will turn out against the Kiwis, and Rohit Sharma, who had made back-to-back tons earlier this year in Zimbabwe but who is no longer an automatic option for selectors.
Clearly, the landscape is unmapped. By this point in time, the selectors should have been in a position to clearly name the preferred players in the slots 3-6, but with the possible exception of Dhoni, those slots are still not hard-wired, and time is running out.
Bowling: Play Ojha, Drop Jadeja
Moving on to bowlers, Ashish Nehra is India’s leading ODI bowler since 2009 - 54 wickets in 40 games. If he’s fit – and with Nehra, fitness has been a perennial issue -- he will get in. While Zaheer Khan has done well in Tests, he’s not brought that form to ODIs. In his last 21 games, Zaheer has taken 23 wickets at an expensive 40.91 each. In batting-friendly conditions at the World Cup, India needs Zaheer’s skills - yorkers, reverse swing, accuracy, and his ability to seal last-over wins. He has to lead the attack. But is he fit? Is he in form? At this point, there is no clarity on either question.
Then, there’s a huge pool of first-change pacers - Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar and R Vinay Kumar. The last one looks the least likely to make the squad since he had a disappointing debut in Zimbabwe. Umesh Yadav and Jaidev Unadkat will get a look-in too.
Munaf hasn't been a regular fixture in the side. So it boils down to Ishant, Sreesanth and Praveen. The problem with all of them is inconsistency. Ishant has been marginally better than Praveen, while Sreesanth the ODI bowler has been a massive disappointment.
Among spinners, it would be a folly to not play Pragyan Ojha. In the last two years, he has the best economy rate (4.45) and best bowling average (28.53) among all of India's frontline bowlers.
There is no way Dhoni would not have Harbhajan Singh in the team, more so given his new-found batting skills. But does Harbhajan merit a first eleven slot on the basis of his bowling? His record only one four-for in 63 ODIs since the 2007 World Cup, and that is not the most compelling case for his automatic inclusion in the squad.
So again, as with all other departments, questions persist about the Cup-readiness of India’s bowling resources in both the pace and spin segments.
The All-rounder - Or Is There Such A Thing?
The reason Ojha has not played more ODIs is because India tend to play Ravindra Jadeja, who is a better batsman. The problem though is that an "all rounder", to be really worth his place in the side, needs the ability to produce qualitatively with bat and ball, and to have the ability to produce the odd match-turning performance in either of those departments. Jadeja, however, is an all rounder of the 'can bat a bit, bowl a bit" variety, without sufficient skills or track record to claim to be a game changer.
One of the reasons why this number seven slot - critical for a team that wants to maximize its resources in both departments - remains unclear is because India has been reluctant to try out other options. For instance, Ravichandran Ashwin with his bag of bowling tricks and ability to bat could be a good bet – but no one knows how well he slots into this team, because no one was bothered to try him out. The carom ball bowler is an untested commodity in international cricket, despite having done consistently well in both the IPL and Champions League this year. Notionally, he could provide India the X-factor - but we don’t know.
Then there is Yusuf Pathan, who has been hitting the high notes in Ranji Trophy. His 195 from 138 balls against Haryana, and a ten-for against Uttar Pradesh, mean he remains in contention for a Cup berth. In the past, he has been found out on hard, true wickets, where the ball short of good length has inhibited his big hitting. The Cup however is being played in the sub-continent, where the lack of real bounce should aid his brand of strokeplay; the fact that he can bowl a few tight overs in the middle thus makes him a viable candidate.
Step back a moment and ask what you want of the all-rounder. It could either be the option of playing the extra quality batsman, who can fill in a few overs – in which case the likes of Pathan, Jadeja et cetera qualify. Or it could be a good fifth bowling option, one capable of containing and taking wickets, who can also weigh in with a quickfire 25-30 at need – in which case you are talking of Ashwin. And then there is the other option – of treating Yuvraj like an all-rounder who can turn a game with the bat, and also produce the odd few overs of fairly tight left arm spin.
The point is, this close to a Cup, there should be clarity on what India needs from that slot, and who its preferred choice is. We, however, still don’t know – and as with everything else, the time available to find viable answers is running out.
The Reserve Wicketkeeper
Let's imagine the unfortunate scenario that Dhoni breaks a bone on the eve of the World Cup. Who replaces him? Wriddhiman Saha has been named in the squad against New Zealand, which means Saha is being considered the No. 2 wicketkeeper in India.
But he is yet to make his bones – while the likes of Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel and Naman Ojha, all keeper-batsmen who’ve done well in the last two domestic seasons, remain in limbo.
The Final Word
In an ideal world, I'd love to see India explore the above options during the ODI series against New Zealand, and end that series with a clear idea of its playing eleven, and first choice alternatives for the various slots.
Early days yet, and surprises could emerge between now and then, but given the form of date, here’s the side I’d like to see take the field on February 19:
1) Virender Sehwag
2) Sachin Tendulkar
3) Gautam Gambhir
4) MS Dhoni
5) Suresh Raina
6) Virat Kohli
7) Yusuf Pathan
8) Ravichandran Ashwin
9) Zaheer Khan
10) Ashish Nehra
11) Pragyan Ojha
Reserves: Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, Wriddhiman Saha.
Comments and criticism welcome. If you were sitting down right now to pick the playing eleven and reserves for the Cup, who would you pick, and why?