30 September 2006

Betting on the batting?

It would seem that the forecast for India at the Champions Trophy is all too bleak. Save for the pedigree of Tendulkar, our batting was, it has to be said, an abysmal failure in Kuala Lumpur. Sehwag’s technical deficiencies were exposed for all to see, and Dhoni’s impatience exploited. Dravid, the wall, consistency personified over the last year, did not enjoy too much success at the top of the order. Yuvraj never lasted too long to make the kind of impact he is capable of. Mohammed Kaif, the only batsman to emerge unscarred from the ODIs in the Caribbean, wasn’t given too many opportunities to prove his mettle. Pathan, with the limited opportunity that he was given, proved at one drop, that at this point in this career, his batting is certainly better than his bowling.

The question that must be asked, and the question that everyone has been asking, is whether the DLF failure of the Indian batting signified a failure of Chappel-Dravid’s experimentation policy. Ravi Shastri seems to be in favour of the idea of fixed batting spots, and was particularly vitriolic with Dravid’s opening spot. His argument made sense. Dravid was prolific at number six, scoring runs in the manner that only Dravid can, consolidating when the situation demanded, rotating the strike, running fast – barely a shadow of his initial one day self when he never seemed to be able to get off strike. He even seemed to be able to slip out of the wall robe and accelerate the scoring – sometimes even to skyscraper heights, and was briefly the best batsman in the world in both ODIs and Tests.

The question of Dravid’s batting spot is inextricably connected to that of Sehwag – whose form at the top of the order has not of late, reflected his destructive ability. It is clearly slump time in his career, and maybe he really needs to think about overcoming his technical deficiencies. To say, “o, that’s just the way he plays”, is clearly misjudged because the longer Sehwag stays at the wicket, India’s chances of victory can only multiply. And true champions make us fans forget they ever had a slump. Just take a look at Sachin.

So who should it be then, to partner Sachin? It has been argued that a Sehwag explosion at the top of the order would enable Sachin to bat with pressure free ease. On the other hand, Sehwag can be equally destructive at the death – an area where India has struggled in the recent past. Dravid in one word is solid, and brings to the table an unparalleled ability to milk the bowling. It is not an easy choice to make. Having Dravid at the top of the order puts pressure on Sachin to exploit the powerplays – which is not necessarily a bad thing if it works. But a choice has to be made, and I would be more inclined to have Dravid open for the sole reason that Sehwag is struggling with the new ball. For now.

Technique is not Sehwag’s problem alone. For years, the Indian batting has been suspect against the seaming ball. Yuvraj and Kaif have a problem, but they have shown in the past that they have the ammunition to tackle the problem and come up trumps. When the Indian batting collapsed in KL, it was more because of the weakness against the seaming ball than a problem with experimentation. What should not be forgotten is that most of India’s success from the last season was crafted on insipid subcontinental pitches.

What is experimentation? Would Ravi Shastri ever have opened the batting for India, had it not been for an adventurous captain? And for that matter would Sachin Tendulkar ever have been able to display is explosive best at the top of the order if Azhar was experiment shy? Both Dhoni and Pathan are products of the situation-specific batting order policy.

Is there a case for settled batting spots where every batsman knows exactly what his role is? To be able to bat to the demands of a situation is the batsman’s greatest skill – forget light feet, a straight bat and a still head. Except for the openers, no batsman ever knows the kind of situation in which he will be called in to perform. By this reasoning, the team just needs a settled opening pair. Every other spot, demands a batsman who has the specific skill set to tackle the specific demands of a situation. And thus, as Chappel is so fond of putting forth, experimentation is no longer an experiment, but a policy.