By Akash Kaware
A captain who does not have the luxury of calling upon players like Jacques Kallis or Shane Watson always faces a difficult rope trick while picking a playing eleven. Should he pick four bowlers, hope to squeeze in four overs - or 10 if you’re talking about one-dayer - from part-timers and pray that they don’t get hit all over the park? Or should he play five bowlers, and hope that with only six batsmen, a top order collapse does not ensue? MS Dhoni has always liked to have the cushion of seven batsmen, regardless of the format or the conditions he’s playing in. In the subcontinent in particular, the policy has served him well, since his part-timers are all tweakers.
But following the drubbing of England in the group phase of the World T20, which was achieved in a line-up not containing Virender Sehwag, Ravichandran Ashwin and Zaheer Khan, and on a track where playing three specialist spinners was not a bad idea, Dhoni finally bit the bullet and went in with five bowlers against Australia (with all due respect to Irfan Pathan’s batting abilities, to my mind he is still a bowler who bats).
With the benefit of hindsight, the five-bowler strategy is a solution to a different problem. If your four bowlers were doing well, and the part-timers who covered the fifth bowler’s quota were getting clobbered and proving to be the difference between victory and defeat, one can be forgiven for thinking that a specialist fifth bowler is needed to plug the hole. But if you select five bowlers, and then give just one over each to two of them and still have to use two part-timers, then it implies that the entire bowling line-up, four or five-strong, is rubbish, to use a polite word. In such a situation, a captain of team whose supposed strength lies in batting, is better off backing his batsmen to put up a total that his four-and-a-bit bowlers can defend, or hope to chase down whatever they concede.
The casualty of the five-bowler strategy was Sehwag, and his omission resulted in predictable outrage.The fact that India got thumped by Australia – Shane Watson and David Warner in particular – did not help matters. To Dhoni’s credit, if he had made up his mind to play five bowlers, he did not have any other choice. Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina are certainties, Rohit Sharma had made runs in the last game, and Yuvraj Singh offers left-arm spin option. That left out a 34-year old Sehwag, who rarely bowls now, is not much more than a safe slip catcher as a fielder in game that does not need slips, and has not exactly been in the form of his life with the bat for the past couple of months.
Yet, in form or not, opposition teams will always be happy to see someone other than him walking out with Gambhir to open the batting for India. For on days that he does find his range with the bat, no one can demoralise an opposition quicker than the man from Najafgarh. Remember, his demolition of Umar Gul in the semi-final of the World Cup in 2011? He only scored 38 that day, but by deflating the opposition’s premier bowler, he laid the foundation that others successfully built on. Admittedly, such days have becoming increasingly infrequent. But the incidents of the last few days may just be the tonic he needs to get back to his best. Sometimes, a man just needs a kick up the backside to shake him out of the rut he finds himself stuck in, more so a character as relaxed and easy-going as Sehwag. Metaphorically, being dropped in the middle of a high-profile tournament is a very public kick up the backside!
Indian cricket is no stranger to stories of players snubbed by captains, selectors or the board coming back roaring with a point to prove, and in the process helping the cause of the team. Sourav Ganguly was reduced to doing ‘Bhoole to nahi’? ads after his very public spat with Greg Chappell, yet experienced a career revival that ended with him scoring his highest-ever Test score in his second-last series. Rahul Dravid, ridiculed for his inability to get going in one-dayers, went away and returned to become one of the giants of the format. Sehwag himself was dropped in 2006-07, but returned a better player for it the following year. While being dropped for two T20 games in no way compares to those setbacks, I would be prepared to gamble that it might be enough this time.
A fired-up Sehwag with a point to prove might just be the spur that India’s campaign in this World T20 needs. If picked for the rest of India’s matches, the dropping of India’s mercurial opener may yet turn out to be a masterstroke.
(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would've been a successful international cricketer if it hadn't been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A couple of years ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)