Dravid needs to think on his feet

(This piece was written before word of Dravid’s injury came through)
A billion prayers do not seem to be heard, a friend told me after South Africa pulled the rabbit out of the hat in the third one-day international against an India team that seems to have forgotten the art of winning cricket matches.
The moot question: Is the billion praying in the first place? If the reports we are getting from across the country are to be believed, not a few are delighted with the spate of defeats that the Indian team has experienced since the time coach Greg Chappell said the West Indies had forgotten how to win. India has emerged victorious just twice and lost 10 of the 14 matches played since May 18 in Jamaica.
You would have expected India to turn the tables on South Africa after having reduced the Proteas to 76 for six in 20 overs. The situation was crying for Zaheer Khan to be brought back into the attack but that did not happen until 20 overs later. Ironically, Dravid’s field placing suggests that he is on the attack mode while his bowling changes appear to be dictated to by the drop in quality of a couple of key bowlers.
Since Anil Kumble was keeping the batsmen in check, Justin Kemp and Shaun Pollock went after Ajit Agarkar. To be fair, Agarkar did get the wicket of AB de Villiers in the first over of his second spell but that was more by way of a gift from the batsman and not because he was bowling sensationally. You would have thought Zaheer Khan would be brought back into the attack but that did not happen even at that stage.
The left-arm seamer was given a break after he had sent down seven overs on the trot and Dravid could have sought to pressure South Africa by pairing up his two best bowlers, Zaheer and Kumble. But after he realised that Agarkar was being expensive and allowing the batsmen to settle down, Dravid played the slow bowling card by first getting Harbhajan Singh and then Sachin Tendulkar.
The art of going for the jugular is something that India must rediscover. Soon.
It is also imperative that Dravid continues to bat at the fall of the first wicket, especially if that happens in the early overs. He has the technique and the temperament to handle the situation. India has tried out a number of batsmen in that position and I am sure that Dravid has proved to himself – and to Greg Chappell, I dare add – that he is the best option at that slot.
After all, India needs to approach the first 15 overs like it were playing a Test match with coloured clothes and a white cricket ball. Instead of attempting to take the fight to the South African new ball bowlers, they should just look at playing them out and ensure that the team has wickets on hand when South Africa makes the first bowling changes.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed on Sunday that it is possible to up the scoring rate in the middle overs. There is no reason that India cannot achieve that again, more so if there are wickets to spare and the team is not in a desperate situation.
So what can happen in the remaining two ODIs matches in South Africa?
One scenario that emerged during a chat on Monday with one of my friends, BVP Raju, a passionate fan from Hyderabad had India letting Wasim Jaffer open the innings with Virender Sehwag so that Tendulkar could be dropped down the batting order to increase the experience in the middle-order. With Mohammed Kaif also struggling to be among the runs, India will have to spread the available experience around a bit.
Lara went down the order with good results for the West Indies and if Tendulkar can be invested with such faith and requested to take charge of the lower middle-order and ensure that India bats through 50 overs. This is something that India has not managed too often in the recent games and that must become a priority for the team management.
I can see a fit Munaf Patel claim his place in the XI ahead of Irfan Pathan, whose bowling has been an enigma, while S Sreesanth may be given a game ahead of Ajit Agarkar who has surprised with his inability to lead the attack with his vast experience. These changes will weaken the batting and it is possible that India may look at playing Dinesh Mongia for Harbhajan Singh.
With every defeat – especially ones in which the team appeared to be sniffing victory – India is making it tougher for itself. The worry, from an Indian fan’s perspective, is that Dravid’s captaincy (and his man management skills are central to this) are coming under greater scrutiny.