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Shocker for India: Srinath likely to return home

Prem Panicker

As I sit down to write this, I find myself in a most peculiar position.

Sort of like Chicken Little. You remember? When you were particularly obnoxious in kindergarten, they made you learn by rote the doggerel of the chicken that raced around, telling everyone who would listen that the sky was falling down?

Imagine Mr C Little's plight when, one day, it actually goes and happens. When the heavens detaches itself from the support pillars and comes down with a dull thud on his head.

What does C Little do? Does he, with his last breath, nudge his neighbour in calamity and say, "Hey, I told you so"? Or does he rue the fact that the world, imperfect as it is, has actually ended?

Similar sorta situation here, as I get down to telling you that Javagal Srinath, India's pace spearhead, is likely to miss the five-Test series against the West Indies beginning March 6.

Been saying for months now that if the BCCI continues to schedule cricket matches for the Indian team with no thought to the fact that Tendulkar and his men are, well, men and not machines and as such, prone to normal wear and tear, then something's gotta give. And lo - something has. In this case, Srinath's shoulder.

So do I, deputising for Chicken Little, mourn the final nail in the coffin of India's hope of putting up a decent show in the West Indies? Or administer a swift kick in the rear to the BCCI and go I-TOLD-YOU-SO!?

The Indian pace spearhead, ranked among the top five in the world and the man on whom India had pinned its hopes of holding the West Indies batting lineup in check, had damaged his shoulder in Toronto during the Sahara Cup Series against Pakistan, and aggravated it during his first spell in the third Test against South Africa at Johannesburg in the just-completed series.

Common sense - and medical opinion - indicated that Srinath should have subsequently been rested for the seven ODI games that India played as part of the SBI triangular series. But desperately short of ammunition, Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar was forced to bowl his main bowler for full spells in all the ODI games. In the process, the pain got worse - so much so that Srinath, when fielding on the line, was forced to resort to throwing the ball under arm to protect his injured shoulder.

And now it looks like it has finally given way. Word from the West Indies is that the Indian quick, rested for the inaugural tour game against Jamaica which began at Sabina Park on Friday, found the pain unbearable when he gingerly tested his bowling arm in the nets that morning.

While the tour management is waiting for the results of detailed medical tests, initial indications are that the Indian pace ace may be forced to return home. His injury is identical to the one Allan Donald suffered a couple of years earlier, and which forced him to sit out for two months while it healed - and in Srinath's case, the period of recuperation threatens to be longer given that he has continued playing with the injury.

The tour management comprising captain Sachin Tendulkar, manager Subba Rao and coach Madan Lal indicated that they would take a final decision by Monday evening latest after considering the medical evidence, and hearing from the BCCI which has already been intimated.

It seems almost certain that Salil Ankola will be flown out to the Caribbean to replace Srinath (though the national selectors in their infinite wisdom did not bother to pick standbys for the touring squad) - but unfortunately, well though Ankola bowled in the ODIs in South Africa, the absence of Srinath from the new ball attack is a blow the Indian team will find very hard to recover from.

During the recent South African tour, the Indian spearhead not only matched Allan Donald in pace and fire, but struck regularly to provide thrust and penetration to the Indian attack.

More to the point, he has in recent times struck a strike pattern with statemate Venkatesh Prasad - so much so that the two, in the nine Tests they have bowled together, have captured a remarkable 89 wickets.

Time after time, it is Srinath who has softened rival batsmen up with his sheer pace and aggression, while the slower but more crafty Prasad has come along to administer the coup de grace. Losing the strike bowler now has two important repercussions. One, Prasad, on whom the burden of main strike bowler falls, will have only the inexperienced Kuruvilla, Ganesh and Ankola for backup. And two, if Srinath's presence in the lineup was a deterrent of sorts to Caribbean groundstaff from producing overly fast wickets, that deterrent no longer exists.

Interestingly, it was Srinath who has consistently troubled West Indies batting star Brian Lara the most - so much so that in a recent television interview, Lara named the Indian quick as the most dangerous pace bowler he had faced in his career. If Srinath returns, then, the Indian bowlers are going to find it all the more difficult to check the premier Windies batsman's strokeplay.

If the injury to Srinath is a blow to Indian aspirations, it was surely not unexpected - the Indian quick has been bowling continuously since 1995, when he turned out for Gloucestershire in the English county season and proved to be one of the premier bowlers in the competition. Since then, he has played the World Cup, the Singapore and Sharjah ODI tournaments, the England tour of three Tests and the same number of ODIs, then tournaments in Sri Lanka and Toronto, followed by the Challenger Trophy, the one-off Test against Australia, the Titan Cup triangular, and the home and away Test and ODI series against South Africa. And given India's paucity of bowling resources, he was not only the strike bowler, but often even the main stock bowler as well.

Ironically, ever January 1996, when India's cricketing schedule for the period February 1996-May 1997 was released, the media has been consistently making the point that the BCCI was in danger of killing its golden goose through sheer greed. It has been consistently predicted that Indian cricketers would be affected by injuries and burn out.

Not content with having India go through a five-Test, four ODI series immediately on the heels of six Tests and 15 ODIs against South Africa at home and away, the BCCI promptly scheduled the Independence Cup, just six days after the Caribbean tour ends. In May, mind you, at the height of the Indian summer.

And when it was pointed out to the BCCI that it was too hot to play cricket in India in May, what answer did we get? This - that the heat was why the I-Day Cup was being played as day-night fixtures. So? A day-night game begins at 15.30 IST - which means that the teams will have to begin warming up at the least by 1300 IST - when the sun is at its highest, and hottest.

Again, when the team to the Caribbean was being picked, the point was made that Srinath and Prasad have been playing too much. That it was vital to send at the least three backup bowlers, so that Prasad and Srinath could be rested in the tour games.

Sachin Tendulkar, in fact, asked the selectors to give him a 17-member squad for the tour. The request was turned down. Answering questions after the touring party was selected, Tendulkar said, "I had hoped to be able to rest Prasad and Srinath as much as necessary. Now I don't have a choice - I must rest Srinath all I can, but that means Prasad will have to bowl throughout the tour, in both the Tests and tour games."

Which means that with Srinath almost certainly out of the Windies tour, Prasad is the next candidate for a breakdown. Not, of course, that such matters will give the BCCI functionaries cause for insomnia, but still...

Meanwhile, the inefficacy of the Indian attack without Srinath was graphically underlined on Friday, when the touring Indians began a three-day game against Jamaica at Sabina Park, venue of the first Test of the series beginning March 6. At the end of the day, the home side had scored 245 for five, and handled the Indian attack with absolute ease.

Prasad was bowled only for 12 overs, in which he took one for 25. Abey Kuruvilla, meanwhile, had a spell of 18-3-59-0, Anil Kumble took one wicket for 43 off 27 overs, Joshi had one for 55 in 21.

Interestingly, given that the Indian lineup lacks an off spinner (mandatory, against a West Indies outfit dominated by left-handed batsmen), both Rahul Dravid (9-1-28-0) and V V S Laxman (9-1-23-0) were tried out in the role - indicative enough of the lack of firepower in this Indian lineup.

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