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The problem of the fifth bowler
Winner takes some, loser takes some. Thanks to the International Cricket Council's format for this World Cup, that was the curious scenario which played out in Bangalore during the India-England game, which ended in a tie. It was definitely unexpected, even if a certain Shane Warne seemed to have predicted it. Then again, while it may have been a point lost or gained depending on the way you look at it, for the Indians there were certainly more minuses than plusses.
Yes, their batting clicked, and Sachin Tendulkar carried on in Bangalore from where Virender Sehwag had left off in Dhaka. It was heartening to see Yuvraj Singh get back in some sort of form too, and not just with the bat but also on the field. Some might even argue that England's inability to believe in themselves allowed India to get out of jail that night.
Yet, the bowling remains India's Achilles heel and there are no answers forthcoming. The hosts came into the World Cup with a lot of question marks over this area, as we saw even in the opener against Bangladesh.
The issue with the Indian bowling is that in reasonably helpful conditions it can be a handful;on flat pitches, though, like at the Shere-Bangla stadium or at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, it can be put under the scanner. Be it the three seamers-one spinner combo in the tournament opener or the two-and-two in Bangalore, it didn't seem to make any difference to the performance. It's a curious situation, because no other team is expected to know the conditions better, yet this isn't the first time these bowlers have come a cropper on unhelpful home surfaces. This World Cup is expected to be a batsman-friendly tournament and it is imperative that bowlers devise ways and means to curtail run-scoring and prise out wickets. India haven't done either and so haven't justified their 'favourites' tag.
The only good news is that there is a lot of time for the think tank to get their act together and make some significant changes. The tournament schedule is well-spaced out - maybe too well, some would say - and India have the luxury of playing two minnows in Ireland and the Netherlands before their next big game against South Africa in Nagpur on March 12.
Has the time come to rethink the strategy of playing seven batsmen and four bowlers, which has been in vogue since prior to the 2003 World Cup? Should the fifth bowler as a full-time option get a serious look-in ? The flip side, some would argue, is that the team's batting strength might be undermined in the process: If there is a collapse with the bat in any knockout game, MS Dhoni might come in for severe criticism for playing a fifth bowler. While there is no reason why the batters should not have a ball in the next two games, it could well be a different story against the South Africans.
The counter point is not totally off the mark, though. The England game showed up the dangers of going in with just two quicks. Zaheer Khan had a rare bad day in office during his first spell. Both Zaheer and new-ball partner Munaf Patel seemed taken aback by the ferocity with which Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen started the chase, but then this a trend that could continue now that the opposition has caught on to India's weak links. Dhoni needs another seamer to fall back on, at least until he is able to turn to spin.
Or should he rely on spin straightaway on these tracks? That would mean a reprise of the five-bowler theory. If the top order fires, the likes of both Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan are redundant with the bat, so why not have a second spinner to go with the three pacers and Harbhajan Singh?
That opens up a second debate. Who should they play as second spinner, Piyush Chawla or Ravichandran Ashwin? Chawla made the squad because Dhoni believed the leggie could hold his own with the bat. But question marks hover over him, and playing him could mean having a long tail. It's also not as if Chawla the bowler is a walk-in, by any yardstick. He too banks on the pitch while Ashwin, with his success in T20s - very much a batsman's game - has shown otherwise. Chawla could be a better bet as and when there are five bowlers for Dhoni to play with, while Ashwin, with his proven ability to bowl in the Powerplays, could be of big help when options are limited.
The bitter truth is that right now, when it comes to bowling combinations, India are between a rock and a hard place. Be it four or five bowlers, Sreesanth or Nehra, Chawla or Ashwin, the team management has an unenviable task at hand. And we haven't even begun discussing the fielding, about which the less said the better!
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