Cricket is a game of uncertainties,and the shortest format of the game illustrates the point best. The other day,during their first practice match against Sri Lanka,Indias bowlers defended a below-par score of 146,with nine wickets picked up by the pace-bowling trio of Irfan Pathan,Laxmipathy Balaji and Zaheer Khan. Two days later,the same set of bowlers conceded 112 runs in 10.1 overs,without taking a wicket. It was no surprise that India went on to lose the game,even though their batsman made a healthy 185/3,batting first.
Virat Kohli hit an unbeaten 75 from 47 deliveries with seven boundaries and two sixes and Rohit Sharma hit form with a 56. But the ineffective bowling meant that all that was overshadowed. Kamran Akmal took full toll,hitting an unbeaten 92 from 50 as Pakistan overhauled the target with five balls and five wickets to spare. The fates of the Indian bowlers might have fluctuated between the two days,but several of Indias bowling problems remained the same the lack of a death bowler,the choice between an extra bowler and batsman,and whether the fourth bowlers slot should be a spinner or paceman.
Ravichandran Ashwin,Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan are certainties for various reasons - economy,form and experience respectively. The off-spinner turned in another impressive display,with returns of four for 23 on Monday too. The fact that Piyush Chawla and Ashok Dinda did not feature against Pakistan mean they are perceived as outside options.
Which leaves Harbhajan Singh and Laxmipathy Balaji to fight it out for the sole vacancy in the bowling line up,assuming that MS Dhoni prefers to go with seven batsmen. Its a difficult choice whether to pick an extra bowler or not. I have part-timers,and we are a side that is comfortable playing seven batsmen, he says.
The tournament is played in the sub-continent,but of late,the wickets in Sri Lanka have not been as friendly to the slower bowlers as before a fact Dhoni had mentioned earlier. The current game at the Premadasa showed why,with the spinners getting little or no bite off the wicket and the batsmen comfortably hitting the ball on the rise. It is not good news for Harbhajan,and to make things worse,the bowler went for 40 runs off four overs without any wickets. Balaji did nothing to make the best of the chance himself,going for 41 runs in four wicketless overs.
The off-spinner came into the match with a good performance to his name against Sri Lanka in the earlier practice match,with figures of 4-0-17-1. On Monday,he was greeted with a straight hit for six on his first ball by Kamran Akmal.
Off-spin to off-seam?
Immediately,he went back over the wicket,the trajectory of the delivery dropped and the speed increased. It is something Harbhajan has done in the past when the batsmen have gone after him.
It is an option that has brought in criticism,as it minimises the possiblity of a wicket. Akmal showed why,as he drove straight and through covers,cut and swept,as Bhajji struggled to find control.
Balaji,on the other hand,bowled two good overs to begin with,the fifth and the eleventh,going for just nine runs. But his final two overs,in the 17th and 19th over of the innings when Akmal and Shoaib Malik were having a go at the target,went for 32. If death bowling was what he was brought in for,he clearly did not come off,with his slower deliveries becoming predictable.
The conditions do not give a clue. At some point in the tournament,with just a few grounds hosting all matches,there is bound to be turn. The cloud cover and evening games suggest a role for the seamer as well. If the current game offered no solutions,India will hope to find it against Afghanistan on Wednesday,before the tournament proper starts.
Brief scores: Ind 185/3 (V Kohli 75*,R Sharma 56; S Ajmal 2/22) lost to Pak 186/5 (K Akmal 92*; R Ashwin 4/23)