April 28, 1999
The World Cup is fast approaching and every cricket lover must be rooting for one team or other. Like every other Indian, I too want India to go all the way and bring back the cup to India. Even though I am a diehard Indian supporter, I can’t deny the fact that our team’s "think tank" has a lot of catching up and planning to do to achieve this goal.
The team management should chalk out a plan for each of our opponents. Let me start with what we should do in the preliminary games. As always, the Indian WC campaign starts against a tough opponent, the favorites South Africa. Having an excellent bowling attack, they pose numerous problems to any batting side in the world. To counter this, we should go in with 6 batsmen and 4 bowlers.
The home team, England, has always done well against frontline bowlers, but are known for their weakness against part-timers. Hence, the 6 and 4 combination should work against them too. The defending champions Sri Lanka have a stronger batting lineup and their bowling is somewhat the weaker link. So, I would go in with 5 batsmen and 5 bowlers. This combination should be good against Zimbabwe and Kenya too.
Our batting should not be Sachin-dependent. No one can deny the fact that we have the most experienced and extremely talented batting lineup amongst all the competitors in this cup – Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Azhar and Jadeja with Ramesh and Khurasia on the bench. But still, our enviable batting doesn't seem to click together to the maximum potential. Often, they end up with just one among the top 5 succeeding or, rarely, two out of 5 (which is when we win!).
What do you think is the problem? I strongly feel that lack of clear cut role definition is the root cause. Each batsman should be given a role to play. Keep in mind that the World Cup is being played in England in early summer when the ball moves in the air and off the pitch a lot. Tendulkar, Ganguly, and Dravid being the more technically equipped and better players against the swing, should focus on staying in the middle and not losing early wickets. As Sachin's very presence raises the level of his teammates, he should show more confidence in them by playing his natural game and play his shots based on the merit of the bowling. Ganguly, obviously a relieved man with Sachin batting at the other end, should go out with a positive frame of mind and concentrate on strike rotation and giving more strike to Tendulkar. The glaring drawback with Ganguly and Ramesh's opening partnership was too many dot balls, with both of them having equal share of the problem. But if Ganguly still shows that problem, it might start affecting Tendulkar and force him to play risky shots in order to keep up the run rate. Both of them should remember the interesting fact that whenever they have played beyond the first 15 overs, they have gone on to play a long innings, which no doubt has been good for India.
If they concentrate on rotating the strike, with their proven shot making capability and right-left combination, they are bound to upset the rhythm of opposing bowlers. Dravid coming in at number 3 will have the most crucial role to play in this campaign. He should stay as long as possible at the crease and concentrate on rotating the strike with his partners, without worrying too much about scoring at 100% strike rate. He should bat at least up to the 40th over, maintaining a strike rate around 70-80% irrespective of when he comes to bat. Azhar at number 4 should do well in England if he controls his urge to slash at balls wide outside the off stump or try to guide balls to close to his body to third man. Once he gets into his rhythm, there would be no stopping him. Then comes another important juncture of our batting, the number 5 position. Who should bat here? Many may feel that it is a foregone conclusion that Jadeja is going to bat at this position. But, I think otherwise. Jadeja, being the best finisher in the team, I want him to bat in the last 10-12 overs and at number 6, where he is more likely to succeed. With his additional positive point of not needing to take any time to settle, he is the ideal batsman for the end overs. In case we lose 3 wickets before 35 overs, I feel Jadeja is not the right person to bat here, as he is not very comfortable against swing.
If we are playing with six batsmen, the sixth batsman should bat at number five. If we are playing with 5 batsmen, I think Agarkar should bat at this position. He has the talent and potential, (remember he was mainly a batsman who could also bowl nippy medium pace in his junior days). It can only benefit us by giving depth to our batting if he does well. In case he fails, we still have nothing to lose as he is not getting any opportunity to show his batting skills, which I think are being underutilized late in the order. Robin Singh, if he is picked, should bat at number 7 and if he isn’t in the XI, Srinath should bat at this position. Having been used as a pinch hitter many a time, he also doesn't need settling time and can start from the word go. Mongia should come in next followed by Kumble and Prasad. This lineup should give a greater depth to our batting with Mongia batting at number 9, because Agarkar, Srinath, Kumble and Prasad coming in that order have failed time and again giving our batting a fairly long tail.
Our bowling is on par with our strong batting under English conditions The history indicates that the most successful bowlers in English conditions are those who could maintain a steady line and length and bowl medium pace. Our own Binny, Madanlal and Amarnath proved that to a great extent when we won the cup in 1983. The early summer conditions over there seem to suit Prasad’s style of bowling the most. His late out swingers and slower ones could be lethal. He should avoid the short pitched stuff, else at his pace they can be dispatched with utter disdain. He should focus on pitching up and bowl more to the right handers and batsmen who are predominantly front foot players.
Agarkar, very well known for his wicket taking ability and knack of breaking the long partnerships, should stick to the basics without striving for too much pace He has the potential in him to become the highest wicket taking bowler in the World Cup. Srinath should be our stock bowler, with his penetrative and consistent bowling. He should be used effectively as the Proteas use Donald. With his ability to swing both ways and his fast inswingers, he should be really effective against predominantly back foot batsmen to get LBWs in his favor.
Ideally, I would open our bowling with Prasad and Agarkar followed by Srinath. The reason is two fold. Agarkar bowls much better with the new ball and is more disciplined when he has Prasad bowling from the other end instead of Srinath. Agarkar always bowled better in tandem with Prasad than Srinath. When he bowls along with Srinath, Agarkar strives for pace as if he has a point or two to prove. Also, a slightly older ball is more likely to be helpful to Srinath’s huge inswingers. Kumble should concentrate on keeping it tight at one end as he always does, and did so successfully and consistently in the recently concluded Coca Cola Cup at Sharjah. If he doesn’t strike his rhythm early, Nikhil Chopra can be tried.
In case a fifth bowler is to be picked, the choice should be between Robin Singh and Mohanty. Against the Lankans I would go with latter, keeping their batting strength in mind. Against Zimbabwe and Kenya one among Prasad, Srinath and Agarkar can be rested. In the practice games, Ganguly and Robin Singh should bowl to the maximum possible, which helps in deciding our bowling line up. If Robin's bowling clicks, his batting is a plus and his fielding is an asset to any international side. If Robin is not picked in the XI to make way for the sixth batsman, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Jadeja should fill in for the fifth bowler. If Ganguly proves to be an effective fifth bowler, which I think he will, the team management will have the luxury of resting one of the main bowlers against the weaker opponents and may be able to play Mohanty too.
Fielding should not be our weak link Remember the World Series Cup in Australia (1985 ), when Sunil Gavaskar stressed so much on the fielding aspect and it yielded rich dividends – we beat all our opponents with such ease. Now that the same 15 are going to play all the matches, each player's role and position should be assigned and practised accordingly. No one can metamorphose our fielding into Proteas' or the Kangaroos' standard overnight. With all our limitations, we still can put up a decent fielding performance just by putting in that extra bit of effort to back up the bowlers.
In the 3 weeks of acclimatization this is one area they can work a lot on. It is very likely that they should play most of the practice games and part of the preliminary stage in very wet outfields and severely cold weather. Under such conditions getting used to fielding with cold and stiff fingers and palms will be very critical and cannot be over-stressed. By this time, our coach and the captain would have identified who is good at catching, and who is good in the outfield. I feel the presence of Bobby Simpson as consultant and Brijesh Patel as manager will be of tremendous help because the former is an excellent fielding coach and the latter was one of the best cover fielders in his days. The fielders to be placed in catching positions and within the 30 yards circle should have excellent reflexes and should have safe hands (Azhar, Jadeja, Sachin, Saurav, Kumble). The fielders in the outfield should be athletic, able to run and dive as they will have more time to react (Agarkar, Dravid, Srinath, Prasad, Kumble and Robin). This set of players should have a good arm to avoid making twos into threes.
When you look at the order in which we play in our group - SA, KEN, ZIM, SL and ENG. Among them, the first and the last of our opponents are most likely to reach the Super Six. As the points from the preliminary games are carried over into the Super Six, the points we score against them are going to be very crucial and useful in reaching the semifinals. Hence, we should pick our best side against the Springboks and aim for a win as it will augur very well for us both as a tremendous morale booster and also add to our tally in the Super Six.
Although we need to take all the opponents seriously, I feel Zimbabwe, who are fielding their best ever team for this World Cup, should be taken more seriously than the Lankans and Kenyans. If we can beat either the Proteas or the Poms or both, we stand an excellent chance of making it to the semis. As one of the greatest ever coaches, Vince Lombardi, once said, "Winning is not everything, winning is the only thing!"
Each member of our team should take pride in representing a great country and strive for victory no matter what happens. My message to our Indian team is “You have the talent, believe in yourselves and play to a plan. You will come out with flying colors.”
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