India must not err in search of balance

The buzzword, even as India prepares to take on England in three Test matches, is balance. You don’t even have to strain your ears to hear skipper Rahul Dravid wax eloquent about balance. If in one breath, he speaks of how Andrew Flintoff’s absence will affect England, in another he talks about Matt Prior lends the home side a lot of balance.
And, it is inevitable that he uses the term when he discusses the Indian team itself, lamenting the absence of an all-rounder of quality. “We have struggled to find an all-rounder, so it’s always a tricky balance,” he says, highlighting the fact that the search for that allrounder has been the story of Indian Test team since the time Kapil Dev faded away from the scene.
To digress just a bit, Manoj Prabhakar provided Mohammed Azharuddin’s team a semblance of balance by opening the bowling and batting. More recently, Irfan Pathan went close to helping the team find the balance. Over the years, successive India captains have also forced middle-order batsmen open the innings to find the elusive balance. That tactic has only had mixed results.
In the absence of an all-rounder in the side, there is more than a fair chance that India will play just four bowlers in the three Tests that are coming up against England. In fact, Dravid has already indicated that he in inclined to play with four bowlers. “I’ll probably go with four bowlers in these conditions and it’s a tidy balance to find an all-rounder,” he said. “It’s a question of finding that balance.”
You can see this as a defensive mindset but you will also realise that it is not a bad idea when you recall that it is combination that England used fairly successfully against the West Indies earlier this season. And it is a decent wager that Michael Vaughan will persist with the three fast bowlers and Monty Panesar combination in his bid to get the 20 Indian wickets in a Test match.
It may help India if it goes in with six batsmen, the explosive Mahendra Singh Dhoni and four bowlers. India’s attack could well comprise Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, S Sreesanth and Anil Kumble unless Lord’s rolls out a very dry track that will tempt Dravid to think of playing off-spinner Ramesh Powar instead of a third seamer. Ranadeb Bose and Ishant Sharma do not look like pushing any of the others for a place in the side.
The sixth batsman’s place could well boil down to a contest between VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh, with the Hyderabadi having got his nose ahead after the lung-opener against Sussex. Curiously, some fans of Indian cricket have interpreted Dravid’s stress on finding the balance as an indication of his willingness to experiment with Dinesh Kaarthick as wicket-keeper and opening batsman, leave Dhoni out of the equation. I hope the Indian think tank does not make the mistake of dropping Dhoni to accommodate Yuvraj Singh as an additional left-handed batsman to counter Monty Panesar. It would be a mistake to consider Kaarthick an allrounder yet and make him keep wickets as well. India must count its blessings that he has shaped as a solid opening batsman and not burden him with the additional task of having to keep wickets.
There is no question that Kaarthick has surprised a lot of people not just with his willingness to take on a unfamiliar role but also with his penchant to deliver the goods. But I would not like him to be tested any further by having to open the innings after having kept wickets for 125 or 150 overs.
That is not the only reason why I hope India doesn’t go into a Test without Dhoni. He is an impact player and can wade into the England attack, especially if the middle-order has softened the home bowlers up. It is critical that the Indian team sees him as its stronger all-rounder and back him to make the difference in any situation.
Here is my choice of the XI for the Lord’s Test: Jaffer, Kaarthick, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly, Dhoni (wicket-keeper), Zaheer, Sreesanth, Kumble and RP Singh. What is yours?