Number three

Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli – three of the most serious talents in the next generation.

All are young, and confident; all three are great runners between wickets and very good fielders both within the circle and out in the deep. And all three have been given opportunities to make the number three spot their own.

That slot is key when it comes to building the team for the World Cup – at the pivotal position, you need to be able to keep the momentum going if the openers have given you a start, stop the bowling in its tracks if the conditions are suitable and the bowlers have built up a head of steam, and overall control the innings, creating the platform for the big push and allowing the strikers to bat around him.

In terms of sheer talent and aesthetics, I’d rate Rohit, Suresh and Virat in that order, but consider the stats:

Rohit had six opportunities to bat at 3 and went 26 against Bangladesh, 24 against Pakistan, 11 against Hong Kong, 22 against Bangladesh, and 4 and 0 against the West Indies before his ‘discomfort against the rising ball’ saw the selectors put him on the shelf.

Suresh has had more opportunities – 16 of them, in which he has totaled 374 runs and averaged 23.37 at a strike rate of 77.43; neither of those indices indicate that he has done enough to seal the slot for himself. In fact, his average and strike rate are both lower than his career stats in those parameters.

And then there is Virat Kohli – the player who, to the naked eye, would appear the least talented of the three, but the one who is rapidly staking a claim to make the number three slot his own.

In that position, he has had knocks of 10 against Australia, 9 against Sri Lanka, a break-out innings of 91 against Bangladesh, 71 not out against Lanka, and now 102 not out against SL for 283 runs in five innings at an average of 94.33 [give that average the weight of two not outs – there is an argument to be made for discounting not outs when calculating averages, but that can wait for another day] and a strike rate of 96.58.

So who’s the one who has made his case with the most emphasis?

If he does not have the outrageous talent of his peers [and yes, before you remind me, it is early days yet – consider this post an early radar sighting], Kohli has two qualities that are worth gold:

He has a clear idea of his strong areas and weak ones, and looks to have learnt to maximize his strengths while ensuring that his weaknesses do not prove fatal. More to the point, he has learnt to put a premium on his wicket – when he gets in, he clearly has the desire to stay in and score as much as he possibly can. Of the three contenders, it is Kohli who has seen his chance and grabbed it with both hands.

If there is to be any gain from the inordinate number of one-dayers the BCCI has built into its calendar for the year, it has to be in providing the management an opportunity to build the framework of a team, and identify both the floaters and the reserves for key positions.

You would have to say that from a team point of view, the goal should be to lock down your top five, and let the players grow into their respective roles so that come the World Cup, each player has a good sense of what he has to do, and what his mates are capable of doing.

The problem is the wild card – Sachin, who when he decides to play, takes one of the two top slots and pushes everyone else one place down [Kohli will, in such a situation, end up batting at 6 since Yuvraj will bat four and Dhoni five; not only will that disrupt the rhythm the youngster is building, but also disrupt the Raina-Dhoni pairing that has performed outstandingly well in recent times.

Consider another aspect of that situation: when picking a player for a slot, you need to pick the one best suited for it. So, when SRT comes back, you have to make a choice for number six between Kohli, in the form of his life, and Raina, who in recent times has settled very nicely into the role of finisher. Who do you pick?

It’s a conundrum the management has to crack. I am not suggesting there is no place for Tendulkar in this lineup – there is, in fact, a fairytale feel to the thought that the veteran, who time out of mind has said his one remaining ambition is to win a Cup for his country, will play his last World Cup on home soil.

The trick for the team management has to be to figure who is absolutely the best for each role, and then lock them in place – in making that determination, the skill sets, form and ability of a player to play a particular role has to be the sole criterion; the personal preference of any player, no matter how senior, can have no role to play.

#Random observation: Keep an eye on Raina when the bowler bangs it in; the lad is yet to develop any kind of comfort level against the short ball. Of late, he hasn’t come up against the kind of opposition, or the kind of conditions, that can exploit that weakness, but in these days of video analysis, it is something stronger opposition will have made a note of.

#Random observation 2: Today there was crackerjack game at the domestic level, and a ho-hum one-dayer at the international level. How often have we been in a position to say that? And while on a great domestic game brewing, did you see the Mumbai batting crack against a good seam lineup on a testing pitch? While watching that, I couldn’t help thinking of the practice Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar are getting in the nets, against club trundlers on flat practice wickets.

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The dil maange more man

Virender Sehwag interviews are always fun to read — words that would sound vainglorious in the mouth of any other player, up to and including a Sachin Tendulkar, seem perfectly natural when Sehwag utters them. Check this bit out, from an interview by Boria Majumdar in Open:

I don’t want to sound pompous. But I can surely tell you that once I get to 60 or 70 there’s no bowler in the world who can get Virender Sehwag out. Only Virender Sehwag can get Sehwag out at moments when I am batting the way I am currently. My philosophy has always been to make the most of the situation when you are in form. So when I go out there, I identify a bowler and get after him. If he is the best bowler in the opposition, your job becomes much easier.

Outrageous, you think? Consider his follow up:

Q But scoring 280 not out in Test match cricket is phenomenal—is it a plan or did it just happen?

A There are no conscious plans like this in place. I have made it very simple for myself. There are 90 overs to be played in a day. If I am able to hit a boundary in 80 of these I can get to a triple hundred by the end of the day’s play and set a match up for my team. Gavaskar and Srikkanth have told me that I should just hold off for the first 15 minutes or the first four of five overs. Once the initial 15 minutes are over, I can get to many more hundreds. That’s exactly what I am doing.

If more cricket players spoke like this, interviews would be worth reading. Then again, if more players could bat like Sehwag…

What a missed opportunity, sirji

New year. New city. New job. Same old cricket – these last couple of years, the Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers seem to spend more time with each other than with their respective spouses/squeezes.

Then again, who needs to start the year/decade with a crib about the scheduling? So I’ll start with a mild crib about the Board’s priorities instead.

In between the moving from Bombay to Bangalore, the settling down at the Yahoo office, the official induction process and the unofficial getting to know the city, I managed to catch parts of some fascinating cricket – Test cricket, glory be, that provided a far more compelling spectacle than these 50 over hit-abouts we seem to overindulge in.

The good news on that front is that India’s board appears to have taken captain MS Dhoni’s request to schedule more Tests with a measure of seriousness [MS seems to speak a language intelligible to the Board – shortly after his public strictures on the need for a bowling coach, the board has lined one up], and gotten the South African board to ditch some ODIs and play two Tests instead [now if the board could do the same with Australia, cutting the ODI schedule down from seven to say three and factor in some Tests, it would really deserve a rousing cheer].

The program versus the Proteas, which Neo Sports is already billing as the battle for number one and as the ‘World Championship of Cricket’, saves a year that otherwise would have featured Tests against only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Given all that I had on my plate in recent weeks, I haven’t done much browsing/reading – but a news item in the Times of India’s Bangalore edition dated January 8 did catch my eye.

The Karnataka State Cricket Association apparently requested the BCCI to permit Rahul Dravid to play for/lead the state team in the upcoming Ranji final against Mumbai. Since the game gets over a mere two days before the start of the first Test against Bangladesh, Vijay Mallya reportedly offered to fly Dravid over to Chittagong in a private jet.

The BCCI nixed the idea without – in true board style – assigning any reasons. Apparently the honchos believe that it is more important for Dravid to get an hour of net practice than full-on match practice in the final of the board’s premier domestic competition.

Pity. It is very rare that marquee Ranji games don’t compete for attention with the national team – I’d have thought the board would have wanted to grab the chance to allow both Karnataka and Mumbai to field full strength teams, play up the championship clash, and get the fans involved.

Would have been a nice start to the year – but never mind, we have a rare treat ahead this Wednesday, when India plays Sri Lanka.

Again.

What an idea, sirji.

PostScript: To all those who asked, in comments and mails — Bangalore is treating me just fine, thanks. Was off the map thanks to a combination of a screw-up with my cell phone connection, some delays in getting my cell and laptop set up at this end, and way too much on my plate thanks to the induction process, and generally finding my feet in the new workplace.

Blogging will likely remain desultory this week, since I’ll be away a good bit of the time getting my new home set up once the packers get my Bombay stuff down here Tuesday/Wednesday.

PPS: Will be away from desk, and net, for the rest of the day, and back here tomorrow morning.