The Indian selection committee would like to have India’s World Cup squad play the four match series against Sri Lanka beginning on February 8, so the players can bond at home before leaving for the Caribbean.
In that case, the selectors have one game, the final one-dayer against the Windies in Vadodara on Wednesday, to firm up their plans and finalise a potentially World Cup winning team (one has to assume they want to win the Cup).
The selectors have got to have our sympathy, because so many people have played badly so consistently over this past season that this is going to be one tough call to make.
Now, despite Indian skipper Rahul Dravid’s saying the World Cup squad is more or less decided, there seem to be several grey areas.
As of now, these men should be outbound on March 1: Dravid himself (1), Sachin Tendulkar (2), Sourav Ganguly (3), MS Dhoni (4), Dinesh Karthik (5), Zaheer Khan (6), Ajit Agarkar (7), S Sreesanth (8), Anil Kumble (9), Harbhajan Singh (10).
Logically, India will take 7 bowlers and 8 batsmen (wicket-keepers included) to the West Indies. Or, if Irfan Pathan is taken along as a genuine allrounder (while a couple of batsmen can bowl their full quotas, Pathan is considered India’s only “pure” allrounder), 6 bowlers plus an allrounder and 8 batsmen.
Now, the questions.
First, the batsmen:
Will Yuvraj Singh’s knee hold up?
Happily for India, Yuvraj seemed quite fit during the time he was on the field in Chennai but there is a huge difference between being on for one game and six weeks on the road. Still, that is a call only Yuvraj himself can make (and know). Hopefully for India, Yuvraj being unarguably their best one-day batsman of the last season or so, his knee will last the distance. If that is the case, then obviously, one place is reserved for the talented middle-order bat. He is a rare match-winner and his left-arm spin will come in handy. That should be No. 11 wrapped up.
If he’s fighting fit, who fills the last two batting slots?
Now that is a huge, huge question, one that has several possible answers. Robin Uthappa’s blitz on Saturday, not just his scoring 70 off 41 balls but the assuredness with which he played some magnificent shots, has definitely made him a front-runner for one slot. However, Uthappa has played one match, done really well one match. What happens if he flunks out in the next game (or the next three, given that the squad will actually be picked after the first two games against Lanka?). It might be recalled that just three games back, Gautam Gambhir was being hailed as a certainty for the World Cup with his 69. Question: Where were Gambhir and Uthappa when Dravid was opening in both forms of the game some months ago and Tendulkar was as yet unavailable?
Then, what of Virender Sehwag?
Well, as Dravid put it a couple of days ago, everyone can’t go to the Cup. But if the selectors keep the faith in Sehwag, having not played him against the West Indies at all, they will obviously be picking him on the basis of past performances and the knowledge that on his day, he is an absolute match-winner. Will they do that, either for the top or the middle? Again, it’s anybody’s guess, going for Sehwag is his overall ability and record, plus, the oft forgotten fact that he can be more than handy with his off-spin.
Against him? His recent lack of international form, the presence of Gambhir and the sudden emergence of Uthappa.
Will Suresh Raina be persisted with?
Again, this is a toughie. Going by the way the Indians are thinking, Raina is obviously part of their plans. They have persisted with him despite his terrible form and he has been part of Greg Chappell’s vision for the World Cup almost from its inception, getting more chances to prove himself than any other player around. But again in Chennai, he made only 23. He would probably get another chance in Vadodara but whether his World Cup ticket is based on his form, well, no one outside the inner circle knows that answer. Going for him is the fact that the team management believes he has tremendous potential and he is undoubtedly a superb fielder in a team of mediocre legs and hands. Against him? A complete lack of form and the fact that if he is picked despite that, it would obviously lead to a certain amount of bad blood within the circuit.
What are the options?
Straight off, top of the bunch is Mohammad Kaif. Kaif was persisted with a while ago when he was having a lean run and then, ironically, when he seemed to find his footing at the beginning of the season in the West Indies, he was given a raw deal. The whole Kaif drama lacks logic and any sense at all. Again, Kaif is an excellent fielder and that will be in his stead in this team. The other options? At this impossibly late hour, only Dinesh Mongia or (whatever the powers that be might think of his fielding and ODI fitness) VVS Laxman. After all, wasn’t Laxman probably included in the 30 probables for some reason?
And now for the bowling:
Straight off, is India going to go with a 4-3 (four pacemen, three spinners) combine?
Their making Ramesh Powar play so regularly indicates that India believe that the Windies tracks will be conducive to spin and plan to take three spinners along. In case they’re not too sure about that, then that’s where Sehwag’s being around might make a vital difference. Meanwhile, the fact that the fast bowling options look suddenly limited despite us thinking till recently that there’s a problem of plenty makes this a realistic scenario.
Where does the Pathan saga go?
Irfan Pathan being there and in form is the perfect solution to several problems but playing a psyched out Pathan who is low on confidence will be disastrous. So it all boils down to whether Pathan has actually rediscovered his rhythm with his short Ranji stint. That we will know shortly. If he has, it is ideal, if he hasn’t, gosh, then what?
And finally, what of the pure pace battery? Where is Munaf?
Zaheer Khan has returned beautifully and Ajit Agarkar is the other obvious choice as the No. 1 and 2 men of speed. No. 3 would probably be Sreesanth, despite his one-day economy rate because no one knows quite what’s happening with Munaf Patel. Is he fit? He should be by now, like he was declared to be a month ago before the Cape Town Test. Is he match fit and ready to rumble? Well, again, we’ll know soon. Otherwise, there is RP Singh, unceremoniously dropped without being played. Irfan back in rhythm would solve innumerable headaches.