Just before the squad to Pakistan
A couple of things are certain; the Pakistanis have a good pace attack and the conditions would be tailored to suit them. So we have to have a decent pace attack on hand and while spinners would be definitely useful to sub-continental pitches, picking three as we would in India would be foolhardy.
One thing confuses me a lot nowadays, this funda of picking 15 or 16 members. I thought it was usually 14 for a home series and 15 for an away series; that is what I have always believed. However, in news reports, I am hearing talk of a possible 16 member team ... what r we gonna do there ... have a group discussion of the non-playing members?
Anyways, reports coming from various sources talks about a 7-7-1 format with three openers. I feel that is a sensible move coz of two reasons - I have no problems at all with Senwag but Gambhir is giving plenty of reasons for worry and while sacking him may not be a brilliant idea, u want to have a backup for him in case things don't look like improving. With Jaffer's current form, I see no reason to look any further at the Dheeraj Jadhavs and others. The second reason is that if there is any crisis in the middle order, the spare opener can always be used in the middle order ... middle order bats mostly make lousy openers but decent openers can make decent middle order bats, that is what me thinks. Anyways, in the current domestic season, Jaffer has made a number of runs coming in at number 3, so I guess the first three slots in the squad ought to be Sehwag, Gambhir and Jaffer.
That leaves four slots for the middle order and when u have Dravid, Laxman, SRT, Yuveraj and Kaif to choose from, one wonders where the power-that-be are going to find a slot for Ganguly. Reports coming out in the media are conflicting in the sense that some media outlets r predicting a sure slot for Ganguly while others r predicting a definite no-show for him. Interesting here is a news item I saw on India TV two days back when the Ganguly-Pawar meeting was conducted in Delhi. Chetan Sharma who is the official "expert" on India TV claimed to have been invited in along with Ganguly ... the only media guy who was at the actual meeting. He said that he can definitely say that when the Pakistan bound team is announced, Sourav Ganguly will be in it. So make what u can of it!
Personally speaking, I have been waiting for a long time to take a look at Venugopal Rao (Andhra player who played in the recent ODIs against SL before getting dropped). Though he was dropped from the ODI team, his performance in those matches as well as the Challenger Trophy before that (India, India A, India B) makes me want to see more of him. Somehow, I can't agree with the idea that since he has been dropped from the ODI team, it might be some time before we see him back in action in International cricket, whether it be a return in ODIs or a debut in tests. I found his play to have loads of class in it and he made me remember Rahul Dravid making his debut in the ODIs and while u could see his class reflected in his play, it didn't quite result in his making a lot of runs ... Dravid got dropped soon after too, I remember. I see a potential Rahul Dravid in Rao though obviously with so much of experience behind him, Dravid is a couple of miles ahead of Rao today. To sum it up, sooner or later, I want to see Rao in the test team and if the team does pick a fifth middle-order bat in the squad, rather than Kaif (or Ganguly), I would love it to be Venugopal Rao. Yuveraj is un-touchable right now though the Chuckster is still not convinced of his abilities at the test level ... but as long as he is making runs, who is the Chuckster or anyone else to question a lack of technique?
With regard to the wicket keeper, it is a no-brainer right now ... Dhoni rules.
Thus keeping the Ganguly scenario out of the equation, the 7 bats for the tour should be - Sehwag, Gambhir, Jaffer, Dravid, SRT, Laxman and Yuveraj. If they go in for 5 middle order bats (and hence a total of 8 batsmen), then I personally would like Y Venugopal Rao in that extra slot.
Now the Ganguly angle introduces itself. The compromise formula for Ganguly definitely cannot include him as a middle order bat coz that would mean dropping either of Yuveraj or Laxman from the batting eleven ... unthinkable today. So if indeed there is a compromise worked out, it has to include Ganguly as a contender for the opening slot. That means with Sehwag as a certainity, either of Gambhir and Jaffer are in danger of getting replaced by Ganguly. My personal take on this - it shouldn't happen at all but if it happens coz of some compromise formula, we could see Sehwag and Ganguly walk out to open with either of Gambhir / Jaffer as a reserve opener ... coz if Ganguly is in the team, he has to play. Reports from the media (and again to remind here that u always have to take them with a pinch of salt) have quoted Rahul Dravid's stand as being - I don't want him in the squad but if he is there, I want him to be in the playing eleven. I will not have him sitting on the bench.
So keeping the Ganguly scenario as part of the equation, the 7 bats for the tour should be - Sehwag, Ganguly, (one of Jaffer / Gambhir), Dravid, SRT, Laxman and Yuveraj. Again, if they go in for 8 batsmen, I would like Venugopal Rao to be getting that slot.
Getting to the bowlers, one line of thinking suggests that 7 is too much while another says that since our batting is the strong point, better to keep a bigger pool of bowlers to pick from than having a bigger pool of batsmen.
As I said earlier, three spinners would be one too much for the tour simply coz the only way we would require a third spinner is if either of Kumble or Bhajji get injured. Definitely one is not going to pick a third spinner ahead of Kumble and Bhajji on form even if they don't take a lot of wickets. The only way a third spinner can come in is if they consider the tour a learning experience for him ... Piyush Chawla, for instance, and don't really pick him for playing purposes. However I doubt that kind of thinking from Indian cricket ... and talking about Murali Karthik, I think India and Pak are so close to each other that if Kumble / Bhajji do become out-of-action, it wouldn't be a big issue to fly him out if required. I see no point in his going to Pak knowing he would be a passenger.
The pace attack is a different cup of tea simply coz there r no certainities in the attack save Pathan. Pathan was always a good bowler and with his latest batting exploits, whether the team calls him an all rounder or not, I definitely do. He bats so naturally that it is hard of me to think of his runs as a bonus as I would with Bhajji or Kumble. In fact, if Pathan doesn't contribute with the bat, I think everyone including the team management would be pretty much disappointed.
Anyways, that leaves a place for three more fast men and I feel this is the series where Zaheer starts his second chapter in Indian cricket. He has been a terrific bowler for Indian cricket ... in fits and starts ... and my personal feeling is that he got too comfortable being called the spearhead of the attack. And oh, or course, he became fat - An interesting exercise might be to compare the read-ends of the Zaheer of three years back and last year ... I am not for examining rear-ends of male fast bowlers but it gives a good answer for where Zaheer's pace went and why his commitment and fitness is in question. When Zaheer made his debut, he was doing 145+ on the speed radar and he should be doing better with the support staff / fitness infrastructure available to the team today. Yet today he struggles to do 135-137 Kmph.
I feel that a Zaheer with the hard lesson of getting his behind kicked out of the team might be a big contributor to the pace bowling department, specially with a taskmaster / instructor like Greg Chappell around. Chappell might not be very impressed with zaheer's commitment but unlike Ganguly who is too old to rectify his shortcomings now, Zaheer is young and can make amends. He should get a chance to do so not coz of fairness or some other silly reason like that but simply coz India would benefit a lot with a hungry Zaheer in its attack.
I still don't see any great thing about Agarkar but he will most probably on the bus to Pakistan simply coz every team management (from Tendulkar as captain to Ganguly to Dravid) see sometehing special in him to keep the faith. And media reports r touting Punjab's VRV Singh as being one of those being considered for the last bowling slot. Relating to Nehra and Balaji, I haven't heard of them in a long time and unless they prove themselves in the domestics (a la Zaheer), I don't see any hope for them.
So the bowler's list would most likely be - Kumble, Bhajji, Pathan, Zaheer, Agarkar, VRV and one passenger (Piyush Chawla / Murali Karthik).
At the end of it all, my squad becomes -
Squad of 15 with 7-7-1 formula - Sehwag, (Gambhir / Ganguly), (Jaffer / Ganguly), Dravid, SRT, Laxman, Yuveraj, Dhoni, Pathan, Zaheer, Agarkar, VRV, Kumble, Bhajji and passenger (Chawla / Karthik).
Squad of 15 with 8-6-1 formula - Sehwag, (Gambhir / Ganguly), (Jaffer / Ganguly), Dravid, SRT, Laxman, Yuveraj, Venugopal Rao, Dhoni, Pathan, Zaheer, Agarkar, VRV, Kumble, Bhajji - No passenger in the bowling deptt.
If they take 16 it could only be if they take three openers plus Ganguly ... and then I wouldn't like to be in the team management's shoes for selecting the eleven.
Anyways, late hour and home beckons ... the team would be out tomorrow and we will know what is what. That is what I love about Indian cricket; it is not just the on-field cricket that is so interesting.