New Delhi: I saw India beat the living hell out of a Kiwi team that hadn't a clue what hit them. Sure, it was a practice match and there wasn't much at stake – but Dhoni's men in blue served notice again – this World Cup could well be India's. It is in the sub-continent, India has the hopes of a billion people riding on their shoulders, the team has struck form in the last year or so and most batsmen in the team seem to have hit a purple patch.
India has an embarrassment of riches in the batting department. Sehwag and Sachin are any one-day side's dream opening combination – between the two of them, they have over 70 one-day centuries and over 25 thousand runs. Then at number 3, there is Gautam Gambhir – who has been batting well, can open and seems to have a wise head on young shoulder. He served notice by a run-a ball 89 at Chepauk's warm up game, consolidating when needed and accelerating at the right time.
Let's not forget, the top contender for the number 3 spot is Virat Kohli. He's also from Delhi and has had a year to kill for – almost 1400 runs since January 2009, at a 50-esque average and a strike rate touching 90. He has scored 4 centuries and has made the crucial No 3 spot his own with some sensible, yet scintillating batting. So clearly then this is a toss-up… not just for who gets into the final playing eleven, but also for who bats where.
The other big face-off for a slot is between Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina – both are southpaws, bowl a bit of spin and are certified partnership wreckers. So who gets in? Raina has had a disastrous series in South Africa… true he did get to fifty in just 25 balls against the Kiwis, but is that good enough for him to be picked over Yuvi? Solely on recent form, I'd pick Yuvi any day of the week and twice on Sundays. There is little to choose from between Raina and Yuvraj as batsmen. Yuvraj is also a useful left-arm spinner and has played more-than-double the number of matches (265 to Raina's 111). Add to that his previous experience in the World cup and he is your go-to-guy in that ‘hallowed' middle order.
Captain MS Dhoni picks himself – after all he's also the wicketkeeper of the team – so barring any mishaps he slots in at No 5 or 6. With an unbeaten 62-ball century in the warm up against New Zealand, Dhoni looks like he could lead the team by example with the bat – in the middle overs and at the death. And after his marauding performance against South Africa in the ODIs there, I'd say Yusuf Pathan is also a shoo-in.
So in the batting department, India has a problem of plenty - that's both good and bad… Good - because bench strength is required to get through long tournaments and some amount of healthy competition within the team helps raise the bar. Bad - because it makes selecting the playing-eleven difficult.
And with such names in your side, there is a great urge to play all of them - so you could end up with a team that has 7 batsmen then Yusuf Pathan as an all rounder and just 3 specialist bowlers. The other day, I heard, Sunny Gavaskar say India should play 7 batsmen - pitches in the subcontinent are batsmen-friendly and the team must put up 300-plus scores or chase them down.
I read an op-ed which suggested Dhoni should come in at number 7 - and Yusuf Pathan should follow at 8. I have one question - if 6 batsmen can't score, what makes you think the 7th or 8th can? Also on Indian pitches, having scored 350, you'd still need to defend it or if the opposition bats first, you need a bowling line-up which can give your batsmen a shot at a 'chase-able' total - whatever that may be.
So, with my cricket-fan common sense and perspective from the couch, here's what the Indian playing 11 should look like.
Gambhir and Sehwag open and set it up with a right-left combination. Virat Kohli follows at number 3 – a spot that he's made his own. Sachin, the man with the 51 centuries and nearly 450 ODIs, should come in at number 4 – good if we lose a few quick wickets and he needs to bat with the lower order, almost an anchor for the side.
Follow that up with a Raina or Yuvi (yeah, one of them should be 12th man) at 5, the skipper MSD at 6 and a Yusuf Pathan at 7. If you need quick runs, promote Pathan up the order – he'll hit irrespective of his place in the batting line-up.
And then the bowlers, Bhajji – he's no mug with the bat and can slog a few, a Piyush Chawla or a Ravichandran Ashwin, both handy with the bat and then Zaheer with either Nehra or Sreesanth.
What this would allow India to have is 4 specialist bowlers – who'd in an ideal world (and I know there are aberrations) will bowl 40 overs. Then Dhoni would need to rely on Yusuf Pathan, Sehwag and Yuvraj or Raina for just 10 overs. Of one of the bowlers has an off-day, use your part-timers for more. Under the lights on low, slow tracks, an Ashwin will be extremely restrictive and a Piyush Chawla wicket-taking as the warm-up match against Australia proved.
But this is what I want – what are the odds of it happening?
Well, there are indications that Raina may have to sit out and wait for Yuvi to goof–up, so that's one on the checklist. Ashwin getting the nod is a long shot – conventional wisom suggests that with Bhajji in they won't play another off-spinner. Of course, proponents say the part-time bowlers Sehwag and Yusuf also bowl off-spin, so there are enough options. I'd like to see Ashwin play because he's a very different kind of bowler – flat and straight – ideal for keeping runs down. Piyush Chawla is one googly even the team management may be foxed about. Chawla has clearly proven his wicket-taking abilities, but a leg-spinner in a one-dayer is always a bit of a risk, especially when the bowler has the tendency to bowl a 4-ball each over…
India's first match against Bangladesh may give some indications, but I think the final shape of the playing (and, I hope, winning) eleven, will be seen in the match against England on the 27th - India will be keen to pull out all stops to win against one of the strongest sides in their group.