TEAM INDIA: FIGHT PLAN

Plenty of opinions, theories and generalizations have been thrown about carelessly and not so carelessly over the last year or so, about how Team India can arrest their alarming downslide in world cricket.

It is, of course, never as simple as going through articles and write-ups of major sports journalists and popular websites, and putting into practice their suggestions and valid points. The team management, after all, still remain just that- and must find a way to combine popular knowledge (for not all of it is rubbish) into their realtime worlds, and hope to find a right balance before perception boils over

Nowhere to hide.

The first major point that must be made, contrary to popular belief, is that the Indian Cricket Team isn’t a great limited overs team right now either. Many believe that despite their woeful test form, India have maintained some kind of standard in ODIs and belong to the level that brought them World Championship status. This is largely because India’s test performances have been so below-the-mark, that automatically, their limited overs performances are analyzed in direct relation to their test marks. It is not possible to lower the bar further, hence, by default, India haven’t done that badly in ODIs since their World Cup Win.

But the fact is that, when India won the World Cup, they were holders of the Asia Cup and the Commonwealth Series Down Under. Those are two major ODI trophies that validate one’s rise through the rankings. After the World Cup, India promptly went on to lose the tri-series Down Under, and not even reach the final. This coincided with the rise of Virat Kohli, hence, almost all was forgotten within the euphoria of individual brilliance. It was put down to rotten luck, but given that the third team was Sri Lanka- not exactly lions abroad- this was a jolt that was ignored.

Then, India went on to lose their Asia Cup title to arch rivals Pakistan- but this didn’t really hurt much again because Kohli once again rose to destroy Pakistan in their group game. For many, a loss to Pakistan would have hurt more than losing the title- hence, their failure to reach the final here (at the cost of Bangladesh), was put down to bad luck and a rotten format.

The art of loosing by winning big.

But here they were, losing two major trophies without reaching the final. All along, somehow, they managed to maintain some kind of respectability in bilateral series- a format where South Africa are undisputed Kings of the world. Still, a 3-0 ODI series loss in England must have hurt- not withstanding a 4-0 return scheduled precisely for revenge on home pitches.

A few steps can be taken to change these worrying trends, now that even the T20 world cup seems off-limits:-

Virender Sehwag, regardless of the X-factor he brings to the team, must be dropped and asked to go back to domestic cricket. There was a time when his bad form would still be the odd 20 and 30 with ungainly but effective swishes to the point boundary- but he is missing the ball altogether, on every pitch. A youngster like Rahane, hungry to succeed, must be phased into this position, and expected to play his own role at the top.

Gambhir needs to be given an ultimatum- series wise- so that he realizes that his technical shortcomings can’t be treated as a one-off anymore. His big match abilities are not in doubt, but his failure to play an innings of substance since the World Cup, must surely be harming his own pride too. He will be first to admit that there is a formula to get him out nowadays. His grittiness, though, is needed for now.

-Rohit Sharma must be promoted up the batting order. He has been mocked and criticized for the precious little he has down at 6 and 7, but a batsman of his talent must be thrown into the frying pan- much like Kohli was thrown in at Perth. He must either be asked to open or to bat at no. 4, where he has plenty of time to prove his capabilities, and can have no excuse when he fails after that. If he succeeds, it will help Indian cricket, because his run-scoring abilities trump even that of Kohli in the latter part of an innings. His current position as a floater at no. 5, 6 or 7 give him nothing to gain and everything to lose- and is a far cry from the no. 3 he has batted at in domestic cricket all his life. Agreed, Yuvraj came up the ranks like that, but Yuvraj is by no stretch of any imagination a consistent top-order player

But at what cost?

-Raina cannot bat at higher than 5 in the batting order. He must be taught how to finish an innings, for the few times he has done that with Dhoni, India have never suffered. Raina should be batting where Rohit is, because his style is suited more to coming in and getting into business straight away.

-Dhoni must consider his own place in the side, for once. He may be a well-renowned finisher in ODIs, but if that was the case recently, one wonders why the team hasn’t been a force. He still finishes the odd match after scaring the Indian fans into submission by taking it to the last ball and ending up as a hero- but those instances have started to get out of hand lately. He needs to take a look at his own past and take his finisher role a little less seriously.

-If Yuvraj is still not fit enough (his bowling form remains good), he should be given time to phase himself into ODI cricket- where the demands on the field are higher. In the meantime, Manoj Tiwary cannot be allowed to fade away, and should be filling Yuvraj’s batting position at 5. He is a handy bowler too.

-Ishant Sharma should be a regular in the ODI team, along with Umesh Yadav. It is a worthy strike attack, and though prone to mistakes and lack of experience, they will develop into a combination many will envy. On their days, we have seen what they can do to the best of them. Zaheer needs to be phased out, for he is currently playing the role of non-playing bowling captain- and he does not put in that extra yard unless India is in grave danger, by when it is too late.

-Ashwin must play the main spinner role, and Irfan that of an all-rounder. The second spinner needs to be someone like Rahul Sharma or Abdulla, otherwise there is no way to move ahead.

Amidst all this, it is easy to notice that Sachin Tendulkar is not in the scheme of things. But we have known that for a while now- and his lack of participation in ODI matches is the reason we are able to put together a playing 11 without him. Even he is aware of the fact that he will need to drop this format to concentrate on Test Cricket, which automatically puts him at a disadvantage because of lack of practice- but he cannot afford to waltz into these teams when he wants to, because it throws the entire structure into disarray.

While he is very important in the Test team, he must take a wise decision and quit from ODIs on a high, because he is never going to be asked to go. His arrival automatically finishes the younger players like Rohit or Tiwary, like it did consistently in the CB series. The ‘rotation’ philosophy made Sehwag a castaway, and Sachin needs to know that his fitness needs to be managed in a smarter way than just playing important tri-series events. Now, with the gorilla off his back, he can step into the world of Whites- with an uncomplicated mind. He could even talk to his ex-teammates like Dravid and Laxman, on how to cope with the rigors of Test Cricket without playing an international match through the year.

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