It may be Jadeja vs Azhar and Kaif vs Laxman

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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The just-concluded Challenger series at Ahmedabad may not have revealed any great hidden talent, but it did give those youngsters on the threshold of a big break an opportunity to assert their claims.

There were several such players whose inherent talents were on display, and if any one of them showed tremendous potential, it was Mohammed Kaif, the man who led India to the under-19 World Cup triumph. He stood way above the rest.

The selectors were impressed not only by his strokeplay, but also the confidence that he showed. Apart from being a good timer of the ball, he looks very compact in defence. He may certainly be the answer to the question: Who will accompany Tamil Nadu's Sadagoppan Ramesh to the batting crease as an opener in the Test matches.

Despite having made such a fine impression, if Mohammed Kaif is not selected for the first Test, one ought to remember that the other candidate for the same slot, V V S Laxman, has also established his credentials. Moreover, he is by now a much more experienced player.

Laxman is in fine fettle, playing in a Test match. But he is not so kindly disposed to playing in limited-overs games. And that has spoilt his reputation a bit on the last Australian tour.

The selectors will indeed face a more taxing proposition in packing a couple of batsmen in the middle-order, which looked fragile throughout the last tour on which the Indian team had only one victory to show.

Amongst the contenders for what at best could be only one middle-order slot will be Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, whose ultimate inclusion is bound to come after a likely comprehensive debate.

Jadeja has been selected to lead the Board President's XI for the three-day match against South Africa (Feb 19-21). Azharuddin too has been selected to play in that match. This will provide some more food for thought to the selectors, who will, however, meet midway through that match and not at the end of it.

Both these players had only a moderate success in the Challenger series. Although both got runs, they still looked somewhat short of their best form.

A welcome hint of newly-discovered spirit of conciliation comes in the news that coach Kapil Dev will now be allowed to attend the selection committee meetings with skipper Sachin Tendulkar. Earlier, it had been decided that he would not be invited for such meetings.

This spirit is expected to override all the differences that have surfaced of late between those who play and those who administer things. The realization has dawned that Indian cricket, at the moment, badly needs to turn out an outfit that can at least stand up to the best, if not beat them.

The Hansie Cronje led South African team, which is due to arrive on Wednesday night, is on present rating, a very close second to Australia which is on top of the heap in international cricket.

Even if India have the advantage of playing at home, the very first task will be to remove all obstacles, ego-oriented or otherwise, that might come in the way of selecting the very best team to take on the formidable challenge.

The period of ruminating over past defeats on the field of play and certain uncalled for aberrations off it and long-distance slanging between the team management in Australia and administrators at home is over and, in a few days, the 14-member squad for the first Test will be selected.

Although one finds so much that is common between the public reaction to success and failure obtaining in Pakistan and here, one is doubtful whether our selectors will make the same drastic changes in the team.

Eight of the players from the team that had a disastrous tour of Australia have been left out and six from the youth team that played in the Under-19 World Cup have been inducted into the Pakistan national side.

It is too early to say whether such a policy of a complete overhaul, including the change of captain, will be beneficial in the long run. A feeling, however, is inescapable that some of the players have been victimised on the basis of a report submitted by Justice Qayyum, who had inquired into the betting and match-fixing charges.

The report had been submitted just before the team left for Australia and there was also a swift change of regime in Pakistan that seemed to stall any drastic measures then. It might be that the action is being taken now.

Be that as it may, in India, minor bickerings apart, we have no such major problems. And the selectors would want be to make minimum changes in the team to face South Africa in two Tests and five one-day internationals.

Kapil Dev is understood to have had a long discussion with Jaywant Lele, the Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). They appear to have sorted out all the differences. Lele was in Ahmedabad for the Challenger series in which Kapil Dev managed both the India Seniors and the India 'A' team which was led by Azharuddin.

With Sachin Tendulkar in Mumbai saying that he has no in-built prejudice against any player, the resistance of the Indian team management to the inclusion of Mohammed Azharuddin now appears to have broken down.

That, however, does not mean that the way is clear for the former captain's re-induction tino the Indian team. Apart from the skipper and the coach, all those who are backing Azharuddin's claims for a place in the Indian team do agree that there are quite a few more contenders now, apart from the man who is aiming to complete 100 Test appearances.

So Azharuddin has this last chance of finding a place in the Indian team.

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