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Match practice required

Stranded at home

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WHERE TO, NOW? A clueless Indian team is led out of Wankhede Stadium by skipper MS Dhoni after England batsmen pile on the misery. Dhoni's insistence on rank turners backfired against an England side which didn't shy away from taking on spinners

India's 'rank turners' gambit failed miserably not only because our spinners proved ineffective. It also had to do with the Indian batsmen finding themselves out of 'match practice' on home tracks.

"They can't play bounce on hard pitches, they can't play seam bowling when the ball moves, they can't play spin when it turns".

Last Sunday, the twitterati wasn't exactly kind on the Indian team as MS Dhoni & Co had spoiled their afternoon, crashing against the spin of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann at Wankhede. If you thought this was just an overreaction of the insatiable Indian cricket fan who can't see beyond an Indian victory, you were wrong. The very next day, Sunil Gavaskar, writing in his column, didn't mince words when he said that the current lot struggles whenever the ball does a bit and he was proved right within hours as India crashed to a 10-wicket loss that left the series precariously placed at 1-1.

Now it's off to Eden Gardens, where 20 years back Mohammad Azaharuddin's men started their rout of 3-0 of the Englishmen. During that series, the pitches were made to order, just like this one. There were three spinners in operation and there was a batting line-up that had a fair mix of new and old.

But that team had somebody called Anil Kumble, which the current crop doesn't have. "Anil was accurate and faster through the air. That made all the difference, " says Venkatpathy Raju, a member of the spin troika. "The back-up was also very good, " he added.

But this current lot lacks a leader. While Ashwin is still new and is not patient enough, Pragyan Ojha is the real threat, but he doesn't have the "bite of Anil Kumble", said Raju and added that Harbhajan Singh is coming back to international cricket after a year and struggling as "he is trying too hard to prove himself".

In fact, India's decision to play three spinners is a dubious one, according to men who have been responsible in the making of the Indian teams over the past few years. While Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who was in charge of the selection committee till September, feels it was a desperate move by the think tank and that "desperation only leads to bruised egos on the cricket field", his predecessor Dilip Vengsarkar is of the opinion that there was no need for India to go with the one-three combination, a tactic they haven't used over the last five years.

"In Ahmedabad, we saw that the ball was reversing and Umesh Yadav made good use of it. I know Yadav was injured, but then why are you carrying two more pacers if you are not going to play them?" asks Vengsarkar.
While Ishant Sharma has been travelling with the Indian team since September trying to get fully match fit, Ashok Dinda is running up and down from Ahmedabad to Kolkata to Mumbai, not knowing till the last moment whether he would be playing a Ranji game or a Test match. Incidentally, he missed both last week.

Vengsarkar calls it "poor planning by the BCCI". He says: "England came a month back looking to play some practice matches here. And instead of putting our best players into action, we are giving them teams like Mumbai 'A' and Haryana. The BCCI bosses completely forgot that the practice matches was not just for the English team, it meant a lot for the Indians as well who hardly play quality bowling these days at home, " Vengsarkar says.

If you think this is just a diatribe of an administrator who is on the wrong side of the current BCCI machinery, think again. If we take our minds back to 1997-98, when Shane Warne came on his first tour of India, a fullstrength Mumbai took on the spin legend and Sachin Tendulkar notched up his first first-class double hundred. That set the tone for the rest of the series as India stopped an Australian side that had forgotten how to lose.

Had Tendulkar put his foot down and said that he would take on Monty & Co in the practice matches, no BCCI boss could have stopped him, but the great man has different ideas these days. He would much prefer to play against an insipid Railways side and score a ton or get into his copy-book knocking mode, instead of an extra game against a quality opposition that might not give him too much time in the middle.

Panesar made Tendulkar look sluggish at the Wankhede and the 'Endulkar' slogan is presently at its loudest. But Vengsarkar feels the man should be allowed some more time. "If this batting-order has to gel, it has to do around Tendulkar. I think he should play these two Tests and then assess what to do, " the former Indian captain says.

The man who scored three back-to-back centuries at the Lord's, is more cut up with the rest of the Indian batting line-up. "These guys have grown up at a time when success in limited-overs cricket is the benchmark of quality. They are appreciated for edges to the boundary in IPL, don't expect them to become grafters on a turning track all of sudden, " points out Vengsarkar. Cheteshwar Pujara is probably the only player who belongs to the school to which Vengsarkar belongs and doesn't come with a huge price-tag in the IPL. The results are there for everyone to see.

But now with the potential ignominy of a home series loss staring India in its face, what is the way out?
No one seems to have the answer. Dhoni now can't go back on his demand for turners and Daljit Singh is already in Kolkata, trying to prepare a pitch that will turn things around for India. WV Raman, the Bengal coach, feels that his current home turf won't exactly be a spinner's paradise right from the word go.

"I couldn't quite understand Dhoni's demand for rank turners. He was leading the series and it was better off playing on better cricket wickets. It's silly to look for a 4-0 series win, it doesn't happen every day. It has all boomeranged and my reading of the Eden Gardens track is that it would be a slow turner, " says Raman, insisting that a two pacer-two spinner combination should be the mantra.

Last year in November, the Indian team had to toil hard to get Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo out as the West Indians made 463 in the second innings, albeit in a losing cause. "The kind of form Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen are in, it's going to be difficult for India. And don't forget that the entire England batting line-up now believes they can do well in the series. If India have to do well, the bowlers have to be patient and the batsmen have to curb their flamboyance and graft, " says Raman.
But that's easier said than done against a hungry unit that won an Ashes in Australia 3-1 just a couple of seasons back and is smelling blood in the subcontinent after a barren spell of 27 long years.

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