Who Can Bat ‘n Bowl?

You would expect some disappointment at the absence Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly from the Indian cricket team as it embarked on its Sri Lankan tour. If there has been any such emotion, the fans have done well to bury it. Instead, a gentle buzz of expectation, sparked by the influx of a couple of new faces, graces the air.

The selection of 18-year-old Suresh Raina and Venugopala Rao, 23, as well as the return of Jai Prakash Yadav to the team, lends a more balanced look than in the last season. The choices point to an effort to encourage cricketers who can both bat and bowl, besides being competent fielders. “There is exciting potential there,” says chairman of selectors Kiran More. “We have been working at finding a place for such players in the team and are delighted that we can keep the process of rewarding talented youngsters for their consistent showing in domestic cricket, with an eye on the 2007 World Cup.”

It does look like Yadav, coming back to the side after three years, will be the front-runner to claim the all-rounder’s place in the first few matches since he bowls fast medium while the two rookies bowl off-spin. Yadav claimed 56 wickets and made 629 runs in first-class cricket to add to his 13 wickets and 264 runs in eight one-day games to be the top performer in domestic cricket last season. Some critics have pointed out that he will turn 31 during the tournament in Sri Lanka but the selectors believe he has worked hard and has it in him to be useful in one-dayers. Raina and Rao may or may not be capped in Sri Lanka. But they will return enhanced by the experience of being in a ‘learning laboratory’, coach Greg Chappell’s term for a scenario where potential team members can be introduced to the requirements of the international stage at critical points in their development.

There are two areas where Chappell may find these lads, particularly Raina and Rao, useful. In his bid to help India replicate Australia’s supreme confidence in chasing down totals of 300-plus, they can enhance the team’s belief in the depth of its batting and its attitude. Also, Chappell has realised that India lacks a couple of ‘situationally aware’ defensive part-time bowlers. These players can be significant in the task of getting through quick overs in the middle stages of the game for not many runs.

Since coming home with the second prize from the 2003 World Cup, India has been on a losing spree. It won just nine of the 23 matches last season, even losing a game to Bangladesh along the way. It holds a less-than-honourable seventh place in the ICC’s rankings for one-day internationals. And, one of the reasons for the slide concerns the absence of all-rounders in the squad. Back in 1983, by accident or design, the Indian cricket team had a number of cricketers who could chip in with either the bat or the ball. Kapil Dev led the pack while Mohinder Amarnath, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Kirti Azad and Ravi Shastri backed him as men who could pull a rabbit out of the hat with their all-round skills. Few Indian teams have been so full of quality all-rounders as the one that got home the World Cup.

Shastri, though, warns against the desperate desire to brand the young cricketers as all-rounders. “I reckon an all-rounder is one who is capable of scoring 50-plus and bowling 10 effective overs with a fair amount of consistency,” he says. “We must be careful in according such recognition to cricketers. We must not allow ourselves to be carried away.” That’s a tall order, to say the least. The retirement of Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri in 1994 and the exit of Manoj Prabhakar a couple of years later has left India on a treadmill in its search for an all-rounder of quality. India has had to employ Sachin Tendulkar, the ever-willing Rahul Dravid in the role of a wicket-keeper and, more recently, Virender Sehwag as all-rounders.Robin Singh (136 matches) and Ajit Agarkar (135) promised much but did not deliver to expectations. Robin Singh’s bowling average of 43.26 runs for his 69 wickets too is not a sterling record and he bowled 10 overs in barely a dozen matches. Agarkar’s batting average of 17.91 did little justice to his talent which saw him blaze a half-century off just 21 balls.

It is not as if Raina is the first teenager to make it to the Indian team in a while. Back in 1999, the selectors pitchforked Bengal teenager Laxmi Ratan Shukla to the team. Unfortunately for him, he was touted as the next best thing in Indian cricket after Kapil Dev. He lasted but three matches in the span of nine months and has quite been the forgotten man of Indian cricket. The selectors also tried out a young Reetinder Singh Sodhi (18 matches between 2000 and 2002) and a not-so-young Sanjay Bangar (15 matches between 2002 and 2004) but the genuine all-rounder remained elusive. In the 2003 World Cup, India banked heavily on its specialists and did not play either Agarkar or Bangar in the 11 games.

A number of others like Dinesh Mongia, Hemang Badani, S. Sriram, Rohan Gavaskar, Vijay Bharadwaj, Ramesh Powar and Sairaj Bahutule have all been in the team for varying lengths of time, without ever looking like being anything more than perennial pretenders. Even Yuvraj Singh has not impressed with his left-arm spin and commands his place in the side for his batting and fielding. Barring Yuvraj and, to a less extent, Mongia, they have all been harshly reminded that international cricket is a different ball game. Kiran More, however, believes that Raina and Rao are ready for it. “They are smart cricketers, mature and aware of the needs at the international level. They have gained immensely from playing in the elite division of the Ranji Trophy and their trip to Australia on the Border-Gavaskar scholarship last year,” he says.

To be sure, Raina’s confidence in his own skills was so high last season that he was quoted as saying: “Right now, the Indian team needs me more than Uttar Pradesh.” Rao, on the other hand, said he was expecting the call-up after consistent performances in the domestic circuit and for India A.

With the World Cup more than a year and half away, it may be a trifle soon to draw conclusions. Yet, we can see the selectors take the first steps towards encouraging all-rounders who can help put together a balanced combination that can serve the team well in the big event. If Yadav, Raina and Rao are the ones to do it, we will soon find out.