If Team India’s Vision is to win the 2011 World Cup — to be played in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — the selectors had better develop a strategic plan now. From their recent actions, I am somewhat convinced that they are operating from the seat of their pants — as has been the case with Indian selection committees from the day cricket was first played in India!
The selectors need to agree to the vision and commit to it. The questions then should be around how to best get to achieving that final state with the optimal resources and personnel in such a way that the competition can be beaten. The selectors need to understand and agree to the current situation, identify the gaps and then agree to a process for getting to that desired end state.
Then the forthcoming (many) ODI series could be testing grounds — a large experimental laboratory — for testing out hypothesis, narrowing the gaps and refining the approaches to the ultimate vision.
The focus should be on the big picture rather than on immediate results, although I would agree that given the nature of the key stakeholders that are involved — the BCCI, the Indian cricket fan and the Indian cricket media — one cannot endure a string of poor results in the name of refining the pathway to ultimate success. The BCCI, the Indian fan and the Indian cricket media vociferously demand immediate results and this is something that cannot be ignored.
The current situation is that India is placed 4th on the ODI table behind Australia, South Africa and New Zealand with Sri Lanka, England and Pakistan not too far away from India. In reality, India will have difficulty beating Australia and South Africa — unless, of course, it is a big must-win situation for South Africa! It is conceivable that India would beat New Zealand every now and then. And on an average day at the office, when the good teams will find something extra to lift itself, the Indian fan can quite easily expect India to cave in to Sri Lanka, England or Pakistan. So, in some sense, the 4th position that is accorded to India is probably an exaggeration of sorts. In my books, the Team India position is somewhere between 2 and 7 with the exact resting position totally dependent on the side of the bed that the team collectively woke up from! And that is probably one aspect that differentiates good teams from great. One can expect, to the point of boredom perhaps, that Australia would win every game it plays unless the opposition plays a blinder. In order for India to get to that state, there needs to be an investment and commitment to excellence.
The main problem, however, is that India should work towards putting together a set of players that would have the ability to beat Australia. If there is daylight between Australia and the second-placed ODI team (South Africa) there is a veritable chasm between Australia and 4th-placed India.
And for this, the team needs the right resources as well as attitude (intensity, situational awareness, grit, will, passion and ambition). My hypothesis/submission here is that the basic capability exists in India. Talent is not really the issue. This hypothesis was recently supported by Greg Chappell. The bench-strength exists. This needs to be moulded and shaped in the right environment and with the right support for the team to get to where it needs to get to. For, if we cannot accept this hypothesis, then we may as well accept the alternate hypothesis, give up and adopt a “we will be like this only” mindset!
There are a few gaps that need to be addressed immediately.
Are Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly going to play in the 2011 World Cup? The selectors would need to know the answer to this question very soon. If the answer is in the negative — and one does not need to be a betting man to know that it will be in the negative — the selectors would need to develop a process and a pathway for phasing out these stalwarts and replacing them with personnel of near-equivalent capability. This process must commence now and not with a year to spare to WC 2011. Finding understudies for players like Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly – players with immense capability and experience — is hard enough. It would be sheer madness to try and secure a like-for-like replacement with a year to go! And for that same reason a cut-and-run approach now will not work either. The phasing out must be gradual and systematic and must be developed via a cogent rotation system so that their immense experience is not lost on the younger players that come through.
Apart from this, some of the key gaps in the current ODI setup are in terms of fielding, intensity and team-balance.
The fielding will improve with the new personnel that are being drafted in. If we take the new recruits that are coming through the system, most of them field competently, if not brilliantly. None of them will perhaps be an instant Andrew Symonds or a Michael Clarke (let us also not forget that the Australian system does also produce an occasional Stuart Clark or a Stuart MacGill)! Recent examples of fielding brilliance that give one hope in this regard include Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, et al. The recently concluded Challenger Cup, which was devoid of any of the regular Team India players, saw some incredibly athletic fielding levels and fielding intensity. So there is hope after all. And when these players are provided with adequate support and tuning, one can be confident that the players will pull together.
Intensity and situational awareness are attributes that are not embedded and ingrained. These come with a winning mindset and a culture that has an accent on continuous improvement. They also come from match fitness and experience. Provided the selectors are able to pull together a cogent set of 20-25 players that they are able to invest in, these attributes will come through in a learned manner. I did see a ray of hope in the Twenty20 Championship. There were times with Team India did appear down and out. However, the team retained its intensity as well as a sense of situational awareness and pulled through. However, to extrapolate that level of intensity and maintain it over a longer period of time – the 50-over game and Test matches — is of course, harder for teams like India for whom such attributes are not culturally ingrained. This is and will continue to be a challenge for Team India, but with the talent that exists and with proper nurturing, this is possible – and let us not forget that India herself is changing and with it, her people too. There is hope.
And finally, team-balance… From this point of view, today’s game at Jaipur against Pakistan is an important step in a fruitful direction. There are no silver-bullets when it comes to team-balance; no panaceas. However, what the better teams have shown and what the Twenty20 Championship has shown too is that any team that is loaded with too many bowlers or too many batsmen will suffer. The modern game requires players that are good at batting, bowling and fielding. A batsman should be exceptionally good in two departments (batting and fielding) to be able to occupy a pure-batting spot; similarly with bowlers too. In todays’ game, Praveen Kumar makes his debut. And this is the direction in which ODI Team India must head. In my view, players like Praveen Kumar (not necessarily him in particular), Rajat Bhatia, Yusuf Pathan, Joginder Sharma, et al would be the way to go. And of course, Irfan Pathan is already there. Just as India builds bench-strength in the batting-only department and the bowling-only department, India should also develop a bench-strength in the all rounders department. There will never be a Kapil Dev, but India does need to head in that direction and invest in these types of players.