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India vs Pakistan: Time to fire

In a way, it’s perhaps ironical that both India and Pakistan will be without their best batsman when they resume ‘hostilities’ on the cricket field in a week’s time. While one was forced into retirement, the other has been clearly put on notice.

Indo-Pak cricket is hardly about individual players, for the traditional rivalry between the two neighbouring Asian countries draws heavily on history and is rich in emotional content. However, when the ‘missing’ players in question happen to be the best of their generation, it becomes the sub-plot of a thriller that marketing whizkids would be quick to sell as ‘war minus the shooting’.

But then, Inzamam-ul Haq and Rahul Dravid are no ordinary players. The absence of Inzamam, who has been ‘forced’ into retirement by the powers that be in Pakistan cricket is bound to tell on Shoaib Malik’s side when they cross swords with India on this side of the Wagah border, while the axing of Rahul Dravid from the Indian ODI side has already put a glee on their rivals’ faces much before the first ball has been bowled.

Team India, so good in Twenty20 of late, seems to have forgotten the winning mantra in ODIs. Two successive series loss — to England and Australia — has seen them slide down the ICC ranking ladder. A further slip-up against Pakistan will see India right down there with the minnows.

As the debate over Dravid’s exclusion continues to rage in the cricket world, it’s perhaps time to run a reality check on the arsenal that the selectors have made available to skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni to counter the Pakistanis, who would be thirsting for revenge.

From the look of it, the 15-member Indian squad seems to have the right mix of youth and experience even though there are quite a few players who have been picked because their past record or reputation precedes them.

The rehabilitation of Virender Sehwag, who has ostensibly been picked because of his record against Pakistan, is a case in point. For, Viru’s ‘phenomenal’ record against Pakistan happens to be in Test cricket and not ODIs where his career average is still a poor 31.61 despite batting at the top of the order.

If a brisk 75 in a Challenger Trophy match is good enough to earn Sehwag a recall to the national side, spare a thought for Suresh Raina, who was easily the ‘Man of the Series’. Logic is hardly the strong point of our selectors, who are known to be afflicted with regional bias. Perhaps that explains the inclusion of rookie UP pacer Praveen Kumar, apparently picked for his all-round ability.

The rest of the squad comprises of the usual suspects, most of whom have done enough to justify their places in the squad. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly have been amongst runs for sure, but have not fired decisively enough to win matches for the team. With Sachin, Sehwag and Sourav available to launch the innings, the top-order has a healthy look about it, but the same cannot be said of the middle-order which has crumbled time and again in the crucial middle-overs.

With an embarrassment of riches in the opening slots, especially with Gautam Gambhir in roaring form and Dravid missing, it might be time for Sachin to slip down the order to hold the innings together, something he had done so successfully in 2002 when India won the historic NatWest Trophy final at Lord’s. With Sachin there to milk the middle-overs, the big-hitters like Yuvraj Singh, Uthappa and Dhoni can play their natural game.

One-day cricket is all about batting, and on paper, India are a far superior batting side than Pakistan, who, however, boast a formidable attack. India, must therefore always look to put the runs on the board in bid to give their relatively inexperienced pace attack some cushion. Compulsory ball-change after the 35th over is certain to take the reverse swing out of the equation, making Pakistan pacers’ life a bit more difficult.

Having said that, the Indian batting line-up, arguably the best in the world, has rarely stood up and delivered consistently. But deliver it must, for the bell has tolled early and rather cruelly for Dravid. It may not be long before it rings again for the floundering old guard which gets one last chance before the youth brigade takes over.

So, expect yet another high-voltage series this Diwali, for there is never a dull moment in Indian cricket.

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