Picking up the pieces
Shaken by recent reversals, India are under pressure to get their World Cup preparations back on track, writes Abhijit Chatterjee
THE World Cup is barely two months away, but Team India doesnít seem to be ready for the biggest event of them all. When India won the Johannesburg Test against South Africa, it appeared that they had recovered from the 4-0 drubbing in the five-match one-day series (luckily, one match was washed out due to rain). But that was not to be. They lost the next two matches, and the series, and missed out on a wonderful opportunity to beat the hosts. Now, India have eight one-dayers, four against the West Indies, followed by four against Sri Lanka (all at home), to finetune their campaign for the World Cup to be played in the Caribbean in March-April.
The performance of various players in these eight matches will determine the composition of the final squad of 14. With most of them playing so inconsistently, the selectors will have a hard time finalising the team. But it is almost certain that ODI discards like Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and maybe VVS Laxman would have to be brought back to bolster the team.
The losses in South Africa have rattled coach Greg Chappell as well as the top brass of the Board of Control for Cricket inIndia (BCCI). The Australian has already said that a few players would be under pressure to retain their place in the squad.
Irfan Pathan, who suffered the ignominy of being sent back due to poor form midway through the tour, is still expected to play a role in Indiaís World Cup campaign. His batting has improved by leaps and bounds, but itís his bowling that is the problem area. The Ranji Trophy matches will give him ample opportunity to regain his bowling touch. After a disastrous 2006, Pathan will have to get back to the basics and rectify his flaws to regain the confidence of the coach, the captain and the selectors.
But Pathan is not the only player whose form is giving sleepless nights to Chappell. The list is headed by Virender Sehwag, followed by the likes of Mohammad Kaif and Suresh Raina. Even the veterans have been erratic of late, be it Sachin Tendulkar (93 runs in four one-dayers against South Africa) or skipper Rahul Dravid (81 from two one-dayers and 125 from three Tests).
While Raina and Kaif might find it difficult to retain their place in the one-day squad (especially if Ganguly or Laxman get a call), both Tendulkar and the skipper himself have to brace themselves up for the tough battles ahead. One reason why India lost the Test series against South Africa was the fact that Dravid could not really get going. For the first time since 1999-2000, he finished a series without a half-century. Of course he did get two poor decisions in Durban but that is all part of the game.
A year ago, Sehwag was the most feared opener in both forms of the game. In South Africa, his highest effort (40 in the third Test) came when he was pushed down the order. His form, fitness and, more importantly, attitude are all under a cloud. Before the commencement of the Test series, he was stripped of vice-captaincy in the hope that he could concentrate on regaining form but that turnaround never came.
Spending some time away from the limelight has revived the career of many cricketers and it would not be bad if Sehwag takes some forced rest so that he can return to the game with a fresh approach.
The saving grace for India on the South African tour was the return of Sourav Ganguly and the lethal bowling of S. Sreesanth. Not only was the Bengali southpaw the highest scorer for India (214 runs at an average of 42.80 with two half-centuries) in the Test series but also his attitude had undergone a sea change. He took hits on his body but gamely went on. His fielding also looked sharp and there is no reason why he should be kept out of the one-day squad.
With Sehwag woefully out of form, Ganguly can form a formidable opening partnership with Sachin Tendulkar. In the bowling department, India have an impressive new-ball pair in Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan.
Shaun Pollock has been the bedrock of the South African team ever since he made his debut 12 years ago. In the Test series against India, he not only tormented the much-vaunted Indian batsmen with his legendary accuracy but also contributed with the bat at crucial junctures.
Even though the Proteas lost the first Test, Pollock took seven wickets and hit a defiant 40 in the second innings to delay Indiaís victory.
He could not do much with the ball in the second Test ó even though his nagging line and length was intact ó but he hit a splendid half century which helped to wrest the initiative from the Indians and give the South Africans a series-levelling victory.
The momentum shifted and it was the Indians who were on the back foot. On a batting-friendly wicket at Cape Town, India got a big total of 414, but Pollock was still impressive, taking four for 49. India, inexplicably, were dismissed for just 169 in their second outing, with Pollock snaring the prized wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.
South Africa, needing 211 runs for a win, lost two wickets at the fag-end of day four and in strode Pollock as a surprise nightwatchman (with a decent batting average of 32). He held up one end and when rain threatened to come to the visitorsí rescue on the fifth morning, he hit a spirited 37 in a 77-run stand with skipper Graeme Smith to hasten the victory charge.
Pollock has over the years lost pace but what has improved, like old wine, is his accuracy and control which give him a vice-like grip on the batsmen, inhibiting their strokeplay and choking the run flow. This explains his miserly average of 16 runs per wicket (he took 13 in the three-match series) and an economy rate of 2.04 runs per over ó the best figures on either side.
Of all his contemporaries, the closest who comes to matching him in frugality is Aussie legend Glenn McGrath, who recently announced his retirement from Test cricket. But Pollock is as good an all-rounder as any with two hundreds and 16 fifties to his credit.
After McGrathís departure, Pollock
has taken over the mantle of the elder statesman of the fast bowling
club. He is 33 and if he plays for a few years more, the 500-wicket mark
is very much within his reach. So far, he has picked up 408 scalps in
105 Tests at a superb average of 23.18.
The Indian sports season has started with the much-hyped Premier Hockey League and the National Football League. While PHL is in its third year, NFLís 11th edition is in progress. Both events aim at spotting talent for national teams, but how far have they succeeded in doing so?
The recent performances of Indian teams in hockey and football indicate that these leagues are yet to achieve the desired results. While the national sport touched a new low with the Doha debacle, the football team slipped further in ranking and is placed 157th, below countries like Fiji (150), Sri Lanka (145) and even Bangladesh (144).
Why do these leagues seem to be an exercise in futility despite unprecedented corporate sponsorhip and TV coverage?
The PHL is being driven by media hype. Ironically, for the promotion of this event in the electronic media, the celebrities roped in were not hockey players but cricketer VVS Laxman, former shuttler Prakash Padukone and even Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. The "artificial" rivalries between the teams have also not found many takers.
There are some flaws in the format and rules of PHL which undermine its usefulness to Indian hockey. Frequent stoppages suit the sponsors but they disrupt the rhythm of the players.
The quality of hockey is also no great shakes on the whole (the thin attendance in Chennai says it all). Moreover, it is imported players who usually hog the limelight (according to the Indian Hockey Federation, the increased number of foreigners is the benchmark of the eventís popularity). The foreign players often outshine Indian veterans as well as promising newcomers.
The good performances of imported stars make the event attractive but they serve no purpose as far as giving a boost to Indian hockey is concerned.
The state of NFL is even worse. Even after 10 editions of the league, India have failed to find 11 talented players who can make the team a strong contender at the Asian level. Here, too, the emphasis is on foreign players and the strength of a team is judged from the calibre of the imports.
Moreover, the league is so lengthy that it is difficult even for an ardent fan to keep track of all the matches, particularly when most of them are lacklustre affairs.
The organisers of the league claim that Indian football is improving and becoming competitive as players are learning skills from foreigners. However, instead of devoting so much time, energy and money on this event, the Indian team should play more often with other Asian countries, especially continental powerhouses like South Korea and Japan.
Sania Mirzaís first year on the WTA Tour catapulted her to international stardom. The second was a let-down, a wake-up call. Now that the third year has begun, Sania has to prove her mettle all over again. The Australian Open, beginning on January 15, will be her first big test of 2007.
She has fond memories of Melbourne. After all, it was here that her fairy tale started two years ago, when she became the first Indian woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam event before being defeated by eventual champion Serena Williams.
Saniaís build-up to the first Grand Slam tournament of the year has been satisfactory. She has performed fairly well on Australian turf in recent weeks. At the Hopman Cup in Perth, she guided India to victories over Croatia and the Czech Republic, winning her singles as well as mixed doubles matches. In the virtual semifinal, she went down fighting to Spainís Anabel Medina Garrigues (incidentally, the latter will her doubles partner at the Australian Open). Had she won her match, India would have went on to enter the final of the competition on their debut.
The Hyderabadi also knocked out Russiaís Maria Kirilenko, ranked over 35 places above her, and Australiaís Alicia Molik in the Hobart tournament earlier this week.
Sania, whose ranking slipped from 31st to 66th during the course of last year, first needs to return to the top 50. She also has to improve her Grand Slam record in singles, lest she gets labelled as a doubles specialist.
Leander Paes might be the winner of seven Grand Slam titles, but he is yet to clinch the menís doubles crown in Melbourne. After trying out several partners without much success, he has finally "settled down" with Martin Damm of the Czech Republic. Their partnership has been quite fruitful, with the duo winning the US Open last year and finished runners-up at the Australian Open. This time, nothing less than the title would please them.
Mahesh Bhupathi made a rousing start to 2006 by winning the Australian Open mixed doubles crown with Martina Hingis, but he struggled during the rest of the year. In both forms of doubles, he has failed to get durable partners.
Saniaís best companion so far in womenís doubles has been South Africaís Liezel Huber. The two won the Sunfeast Open and the Bangalore Open last year. In Liezelís absence, it is anybodyís guess how far Sania will go in the company of Garrigues.
Coming on to the big guns, Roger Federer is aiming for his third title in four years. He suffered a rare setback in 2005 when Russiaís Marat Safin knocked him out in the semis and went on to win the crown. Safin did not play last year but he is back in Melbourne this time, posing a big threat to the world number one Swiss. Spainís Rafael Nadal, who skipped the event last year due to injury, has been struggling to regain form and fitness recently. Home favourite Lleyton Hewitt is, of course, a strong contender.
Among the ladies, defending champion
Amelie Mauresmo of France would have to keep the Russian brigade at bay
to do it again. US Open winner Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina, Nadia
Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova would be her major challengers.
(Incidentally, no Russian woman has won the Australian Open so far).
Last yearís runner-up Justine Henin-Hardenne is out of action, but
another Belgian, Kim Clijsters, is determined to win her first
Australian Open title on what would be her last appearance.
Team India management made glaring mistakes in the "do or die" Cape Town Test that cost the team not only the match but also the series. Persisting with out-of-form players like Virender Sehwag proved disastrous.
Opener Gautam Gambhir should have been given a chance to prove his worth, especially because he had batted well in a warm-up match. Also, there was no need to change the batting order in the second innings of the third Test after the team had got a good total of 414 in the first essay.
Harbhajan Singhís omission was also baffling. On a spinning track, he would have been a handful for the South African batsmen, particularly if he had bowled in tandem with Anil Kumble.