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March 21, 2002

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Of spin, and other turns

Prem Panicker

It's a good thing the Indian insurance sector has been privatised -- Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh can now get good deals when taking out insurance for their fingers.

They'll need to, won't they? Because the national selectors in their all-seeing wisdom have opted to pick just two spinners for the upcoming series against the West Indies.

The thinking runs thusly: India is playing the West Indies. That is the land of Holding and Roberts and Marshall and Garner and Ambrose and Walsh and Croft and Clarke and...

Together, those names spell pace. Ergo, when playing in the West Indies, you will find fast bowlers, and faster pitches. Therefore, you need pacemen, not spinners.

Which is what we have got -- four pacemen, in the form of Javagal Srinath, Ashish Nehra, Tinu Yohannan and Zaheer Khan. Of whom only two will play in the Tests -- with Srinath and Zaheer getting first pick, Nehra getting a go if one of the two frontline bowlers breaks down either physically or form-wise, and Yohannan cast in the role of heir not apparent.

So pretend you are Ganguly on day one of the first Test, leading the team out into the field. You toss the ball to Srinath and Khan. After six overs, the former is tired and needs to be replaced. And so, in the 13th over of the morning, still inside the first hour of play, you toss the ball to Kumble. And an over or two later, bring Harbhajan on to replace Zaheer. The pattern is repeated in the afternoon and evening sessions -- a brief spell from the seamers, then endless overs of spin from the other two.

Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble See why they need insurance?

The solution was self-evident. By no stretch of imagination will the team ever play -- nor can it afford to play -- Sanjay Bangar in a Test. So what is he doing there? And where is Murli Karthik, who should be there so that India has an off spinner, an attacking left arm spinner, and an orthodox leg spinner?

That is the most glaring deficiency in the team picked by the national selectors today, for the tour of the West Indies, starting in April. Underlining it merely raises the second question -- how can India afford to play three spinners and two seamers?

To answer that, try listing the guaranteed picks, in batting order: Shiv Sundar Das (1); VVS Laxman (3); Sachin Tendulkar (4); Sourav Ganguly (5); Rahul Dravid (6); Anil Kumble (8); Harbajan Singh (9); Zaheer Khan (10) and Javagal Srinath (11).

That leaves places 2 and 7 to fill. The immediate temptation will be to pencil Deep Dasgupta in at number two, thereby filling the keeper's slot as well, and opening up the batting to accomodate an extra batsman in the in-form Mongia. Or -- more sensibly -- an extra bowler in Murli Karthik. Or rather, since Karthik does not figure in the wise men's mindset, with either Nehra or Yohannan.

The problem though is that Dasgupta has, on average, been dropping three catches per 50 overs, plus one stumping, plus a half-dozen byes. And his ineptitude has been telling on the bowlers, who have reacted with open displays of frustration and, occasionally, contempt. Given that it is hard enough for India to bowl any halfway decent side out twice with just four bowlers, can the team afford the additional luxury of a keeper who clings on to one in every four chances that come his way?

The sensible answer has to be, no. Which means that Ajay Ratra -- a very good keeper and getting better by the day -- gets pencilled in at number 7.

That leaves number two. Where you can either play Dasgupta as a pure batsman, or back Wasim Jaffer to make a comeback on the strength of a hot domestic season. Put that way, Jaffer seems the ideal choice, as being the better backfoot player of the two.

But is there a third choice? Is it time for John Wright to march up to one of the four pampered superstars who, till date, have been ducking the big challenge and say to them, look, this is not open to discussion, one of you has to open, for the sake of team balance?

Whenever there is talk of promoting someone to open, examples are immediately dredged up to argue against it. Look at Laxman, they say. Look at Rahul Dravid. Do we need to take a good middle order batsman and convert him into a mediocre opener?

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of these arguments are planted in the media by the players themselves. It is the easiest thing to do -- you take a young journalist aside and fill his head with these examples, talk to him earnestly about how opening is a state of mind, and off he goes, to write it all up as if it was his own thought.

But perhaps it is time to think of another example. Justin Langer, you will recall, was a middle order batsman (number three, actually) who was told that his choice was clear: either open, or sit out. He picked the former -- and has been making history, alongside his accomplice Mathew Hayden, ever since.

Rahul Dravid A Dravid, for instance, will ask, why should I be the sacrificial lamb. Maybe it is time to ask, why should I not be the hero the team needs?

Technically, Dravid is streets ahead of Langer -- it is in the mind that the former has abdicated that space, and that opportunity.

The other option is Sourav Ganguly, now at number five. If the openers and numbers three and four click, then he is wasted. If there is a collapse, then again he is not the kind of player who can shepherd the lower half along. The only argument against him opening is his seeming vulnerability to the short delivery -- but it would be naive in the extreme to imagine that the Indian captain won't be treated to what in the Caribbean they call the perfume ball, even if he bats at number 11. So, why not make the jump?

One of the two slipping into the opening slot opens up a space in the middle -- and the horses for courses theory immediately comes into play. If the Indians find themselves on a track that goes out of its way to help bowlers, then Dinesh Mongia slips into the middle to bolster the batting. And if the pitch proves to be good for batting, then the team management can reckon that the extra bowler is more valuable than a superfluous batsman.

Or so logic would seem to dictate. Having said that, logic and team selection haven't, in the past, haven't even been nodding acquaintances, so what hope is there that we will buck the trend this time?

In passing, I wonder -- does the BCCI insure the fingers of its spinners? Or do 'Bajji' and 'Jumbo' have to pay for it themselves?

Postscript:  By the middle of next week, I expect to be in the New York area on a tour of duty. With the intention of collecting first hand feedback, I'd love to get in touch with any of you who live in that region, and happen to be reading this. Do mail me, with your email IDs and contact numbers. See you there.

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