First of all someone has to firmly point out to our cricket Board officials, national selectors, the Indian captain and most regrettably, the media, that it is wrong to suggest that we had a great tour of Australia as far as ODI cricket is concerned. India held the honour against the Aussies in the four match Test Series, but as far as the triangular One-day International series is concerned, VB Series as it was called, India registered only one win against Australia. India reached the final helped by the fact that the third team in the fray was the beleaguered Zimbabwean side. Factual position is, in the finals India did not even make Australia sweat and they thrashed us 2-0! By all means let us be proud of our achievement of drawing the Border-Gavaskar Test Series in Australia but we should clearly remember that as far as our performance against Australia in ODIs is concerned, it was disastrous in Australia. Besides the two final matches, India crossed swords with the Aussies five times in the league stage and an overall 6-1 score line only states the obvious.
Even before the trip to Australia, India had played against Australia and New Zealand in the triangular TVS Challenge in India last October. Once again a solitary win against the Kiwis enabled us to make it to the finals where, just as in Australia later, the Aussies blanked India 2-0!
After the tour down under, India had a historic tour of Pakistan and against all expectations came out on top in Tests as well as ODIs. Just the fact that never before in history India had triumphed over their archrivals in Pakistan in any series in either version of the game, makes the 3-2 win in the ODI series very creditable indeed. But if one looks at the performance of India in TVS Cup in India, VB Series in Australia, Singer Cup in Sri Lanka, Videocon Cup in Holland and now the Natwest series loss in England, perhaps it can be said that in the high pressure series against Pakistan, the nerves of a very young Pakistani side gave away. With Bob Woolmer at the helm of affairs, already signs are there that now even the Pakistanis are a different proposition altogether. Haven't Inzi's men already bested Sourav's men in Sri Lanka and Amstveen?
During our last trip to England in 2002, India had lifted the Natwest Trophy blanking out Sri Lanka every time they faced them in the league phase and then beating England in the final. The glorious run continued in the World Cup 1999, where we made it to the finals defeating Holland, England, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Kenya en-route. Even after the World Cup, India shared the Singer Cup with South Africa in Dhaka, with the final being rained off.
So what has gone wrong since then? I suggest everyone to take a close look at India's present ODI and Test Sides. It is shocking to note that now there is virtually no difference between the two sides! Aakash Chopra is the only player in the Test Team who does not figure in the India ODI squad and with Yuvraj gunning down for Sourav's place in the Test squad, Ganguly has already given enough indications that he would drop poor Aakash to make way for Yuvraj! Forgetting that for a moment, if one looks at any other leading ODI side of the world, it is immediately noticeable that in every case at least 4-5 players specialise in either of the two varieties of the game. The previous selection committees under Chandu Borde and Brijesh Patel were alive to this simple wisdom and were clear in their minds that to excel in ODIs, a side needed dedicated specialists like Bevan, Harvey, Symonds, Brad Hogg etc. Players like Robin Singh, Reetinder Sodhi, Dinesh Mongia, Yuvraj etc. were our answer and till Singer Cup in Dhaka last year, India was doing splendidly. It was this realisation, which made us confine Laxman to the Test Side and Yuvraj, Mongia and Kaif to the ODI side in 2002! And the results were not bad at all, were they? Laxman scored the maximum runs in the four Test series against West Indies in the Caribbean in 2002 and Mongia, Kaif and Yuvraj helped us lift the NatWest Cup in 2002 and the glorious run continued till April 2003!
Even when Mongia was needlessly pushed down to the seventh number in the Dhaka tourney last year, he belted Pollock and Ntini all around to score a 37 ball 56 not out! It seemed India could do no wrong. And then Kirmani's brigade struck. They needlessly dropped Mongia and drafted Laxman into the ODI Side. Forget about his present Don Quxiote type swipes at anything pitched outside his off, the fact is Laxman runs poorly, is unable to hit over the top and has to be hidden anywhere in the field once the slip cordon is taken off. The problem is he keeps scoring a fifty or even a century every 12 innings or so and than cacophony of the dreaded 'Form is Temporary, Class is Permanent' drowns out all the protests and the nightmare continues. With Laxman in the ODI side, the balance of the team is a total casualty. We badly need Dinesh Mongia in the side as he can consistently hit runs in a match, can bat anywhere in the batting order, can bowl 7-10 reasonably tight overs and can tightly field anywhere in the field. Remember World Cup final in 1999? Aussies scored 360 for two and yet Mongia had the most economical bowling figures! Who will make Kirmani, More, Azad, Jagdale and Roy understand that even after scoring more than double the number of Test Hundreds than Laxman, Justin Langer is not a part of Australian ODI side? Dinesh Mongia is a match winner and talent wise he compares favourably to Andrew Symonds or Michael Clarke. Ask Hooper!
Sachin Tendulkar was ruled out of the ICC Champions Trophy and BCCI joint secretary Ratnakar Shetty contacted Mongia, who is doing duty for Lancashire this season and has incidentally been voted the Player of the Month at Lancashire. Shetty asked Mongia to report to John Wright for replacing Sachin.
For argument's sake, does Mongia not deserve at least one fair discussion about his name between the five selectors? Poor Dinesh! Despite plundering hundreds of runs for Lancashire this season he must be tearing his hair in exasperation. With his consistent tall scores, he has succeeded in pushing out Aussie Stuart Law and West Indian Carl Hooper from the race and emerge player number one for Lancashire this season. By now we have seen Rohan Gavaskar bat in Australia, Sri Lanka, Holland and now England too. Every time with his clearly limited abilities he has appeared to be a classic case of a Ranji Trophy level Alice in the Wonderland of international level cricket. The third match of the Natwest Trophy could not have made any difference to the outcome of the series, but because it was won by India minus Rohan figuring in the playing XI, somehow one gets the feeling that in the ICC Cup too, in most matches he will not be in the playing XI and thus prolong his career. Strong alibi of hardly got any chances would also help him in the longer run.
Influential Godfathers are the bane of present Indian ODI side and Ajit Agarkar's millionth recall is an ample proof of that. If only it wasn't so tragic, it could have been considered comical to hear Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar gloat on the need to play Agarkar in every match that India plays. Ravi goes to the extent of saying that he genuinely believes Ajit is loaded with so much talent that he should play for India in every single ODI. The pity is, Shastri makes this remark every time Agarkar beats a batsman and almost on every such occasion, in the end Agarkar almost predictably gets hammered for 55-75 runs in the 5-10 overs that he bowls! Isn't it high time someone shook our selectors and the Board and convinced them to thank Ajit Agarkar for his services and give at least 5 consecutive matches to Avishkar Salvi, Munaf Patel or Amit Bhandari?
Over the past few years, John Wright has done a wonderful job for the Indian cricket team but for one, I genuinely believe John has contributed whatever he had to and we cannot move ahead from where we are now with John Wright as the team coach.
Today, it seems to be a case of anybody who is or was somebody in Indian or International cricket walking into a practice session of the Indian team and imparting his own pearls of wisdom whether desired or not. How else can one explain Srinath transforming Laxmipathy Balaji into a poor clone of Srinath of early 1990s, spraying the ball all around at Oval, in an astonishingly short period of a few weeks since Sri Lanka? One day it is Bruce Reid, another day Srinath and Kapil Dev on yet another day! Which self-respecting coach would tolerate this sort of nonsense?
Now a stage has come when India badly needs an assertive coach, if only to hold a strong counter to Sourav's reasoning, which have been faulty on more than a few occasions. India would have really prospered with someone like Bob Woolmer. Before being lapped up by Pakistan, Bob had given enough hints to suggest that he would have loved to get associated with Team India. Woolmer wasn't destined to be of use to us but certainly someone like Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, Barry Richards or even Geoffrey Boycott can make immense contribution to our cricket team. They are astute observers of the game and unlike John Wright will insist on being convinced by the skipper about every aspect of the game; be it player, tactics or strategies.
With due respect to Wright, the trouble is he never commanded a stature in International cricket like Dravid, Ganguly or Sachin and it never helped our cause that he is a shy introvert. That won't be the case with either of the Chappells, Barry Richards or Geoffrey Boycott.
There are certain voices pushing for an Indian coach and should an Indian coach be considered for the top job, as things stand today, Sandip Patil would be the frontrunner. Somehow, in a big and diverse country like India, it would be better to have a top-notch professional from another country as the team coach. It can easily be imagined what a juicy target Sandip Patil would have been were he to be the coach of the present Indian team in England, especially on the question of Agarkar and Rohan in the side. Able Indian coaches could assist the team coach, but for so many reasons it is in India's interest to have a tactically brilliant coach from another country who is free of personal bias. Patil and Robin Singh, currently coaching India 'A' and India Under-19 respectively, are yielding good results and India should persist with it for next few years.
Importantly, perhaps its is the right time to make a comprehensive assessment about Sourav Ganguly's place in the Indian team. While there is no doubt that Ganguly remains one of the best ODI players in India, it has been pretty obvious for quite some time now that he has been holding his place in the Test Team only because of the fact that he happens to be the skipper of the side. Stepping in for Sourav, Yuvraj slammed an excellent Test century in Multan against Pakistan this year and make no mistake about it, between Dinesh Mongia, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Mohammad Kaif, we have more than ample reserves in ammunition to step in for Sourav dada once he hangs up his boots. If Sourav makes an honest introspection, it would be a very well considered decision as far as he and the Indian cricket is concerned if he makes a grand announcement of his availability only for the ODI cricket after the forthcoming home series against Australia and indicates his desire to focus on the 2007 World Cup. There can be nothing better from the Indian ODI team's point of view than to have a focused skipper and at least 4-5 specialist ODI players gelling together and evolving a lean-mean outfit in the next couple of years.
To be fair to Sachin, he never really got a balanced and fully fit side under his command. With his persistent injury niggles, one is not sure whether captaincy of the Test Team would motivate Tendulkar to go for greater glories as his glorious playing career slowly but surely comes to a commanding end. Perhaps, it would make sense to hand over the Indian Test captaincy to Dravid. Rahul is a very astute student of the game and together with a master like Chappell, Barry Richards or Boycott as the team coach, hopefully he would help India develop into a technically and tactically awesome Test Team, for the next few years to come.
Last but not the least the persistent injuries to players like Zaheer Khan, Agarkar, Nehra, Harbhajan and off late other members of the side too, is an alarming issue for sure. Perhaps, the Indian think tank and Board needs to take a close, hard look at our system. Presently, whenever a player submits a certificate of match fitness from Board appointed Dr. Anant Joshi, one starts wondering whether the player armed with the certificate will last for at least one full match or not!
(The views expressed are the writer's own)