Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar look for hopeImpossible as it may sound, the last time India were in trouble in southern Africa, things were actually worse. Smoke was emerging from Parliament, mock funeral services for the team were held outside the Eden Gardens and heads were demanded on plates. The,Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar look for hopeImpossible as it may sound, the last time India were in trouble in southern Africa, things were actually worse. Smoke was emerging from Parliament, mock funeral services for the team were held outside the Eden Gardens and heads were demanded on plates. The Indians had been clobbered by a Kwa Zulu Natal 2nd XI, embarrassed by Holland and then flattened by Australia.This was the World Cup, the only meaningful prize in the ODI game and the buck stopped dead at India’s door.To recover from a forgettable tour of New Zealand, and the loss of five ODIs in a row, the 2003 team had done all they say India 2006 has not: lined up net bowlers before landing, arrived well in advance, camped in the Durban nets. But still the batsmen struggled, still India was being steamrolled.So, at a meeting before a must-win game vs Zimbabwe, the mighty bats were all banished to the hotel swimming pool and asked to fix the problem amongst themselves. They returned with a re-ordered line-up. The next day, Tendulkar produced a precious 50 as opener, Zimbabwe were beaten and India got its groove back.The veterans of 2003 know that team fortunes can turn on trifles but three years later in South Africa, no one has been able to tap that tipping point. India have again lost five ODIs in a row. They have failed to bat out 50 overs in five of their last eight matches, seven of their last 16. “It’s like one team is playing the 100-overs game and India is playing 20-20,” says former India and Kenya coach Sandeep Patil mournfully.advertisementOne traveller with the India party says, “What’s frightening is that for the first time, we can’t see hope.” After the Port Elizabeth ODI that cost India the series, Sunil Gavaskar proclaimed, “Unless a strong message is sent for the Test series, you can kiss the World Cup good bye.” Stripping Virender Sehwag of the vice captaincy was a message alright, but it needs sound follow through. Between now and the World Cup, the team has eight matches to find faith and Indian cricket has few questions to answer.Q. Is it time to return to the OLD GUARD?Yes. First came the scramble for VVS Laxman and then the selection of Mr G for the Tests. Like both Mrs Gs, Mr G is an individual, an idea and an influence. The first hint of Sourav Ganguly’s return to the Test squad and a former selector dripped acid, “It seems there is no other cricketer in India.”Stats of the last 15 ODI results of the top teamsClick here to EnlargeBut the injury to Yuvraj Singh and his iffy World Cup chances could mean a yawning hole in the already stuttering middle order. Yuvraj’s experience, match nous and fielding are hard to replace but of all players, only Ganguly and Laxman qualify on two out of three counts.It may mean choosing between Laxman’s fire-fighting skills and the added dimension of Ganguly’s medium pace and also which of the two will be easier to handle. Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell are firm with what they consider youthful petulance (Sreesanth was apparently dropped from the Champions Trophy as a warning).The arrival of older, stronger personalities will not be Dravid’s and Chappell’s recipe for harmony going into a big event. Patil brushes aside all objections, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t like someone’s face. The bottomline is this: youngsters are not delivering, you have too little time, so don’t go by personal grudges, bring your trusted warriors back-Laxman, Ganguly Kumble, Zaheer.”Former India coach John Wright’s advice to the Indian management is muted but focussed: “Get your top three right and know who your best bowlers are.”Q. Should the coach or captain be SACKED?No. Because it’s just too late. “It would put tremendous pressure on the team,” says one Board member. “What would the other captain or coach achieve in four months?” What the Indian think tank could contemplate is a new tack of leadership.OLD WARRIORS: VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly find favour againMore than the famous ‘Now or Never’, India’s 2003 World Cup campaign was built around the idea: keep winning, stay together. Along the way it took a while to engage with the humble single, finals came and went, there were frustrating stumbles. But as Javagal Srinath, a key member in 2003, remarks, “Our bad form may have been temporary, but the environment- of reinforcement and freedom- remained constant.”Maybe perform or perish, worthy idea as it may be, does not work for a team repeatedly perishing. Maybe Dravid and Chappell, self-starting high achievers both, are just too similar. Maybe there is too much stick and too little carrot. Along with the daily business of planning and preparation, one between Dravid and Chappell needs to actively work to minimize the distance between officers and men.advertisementQ. Does the team need a bowling COACH?Yes. Even chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar thinks so. But, for jeepers’ sakes, choose smartly. With his aggressive posturing and unsympathetic dissection of Irfan Pathan, (once considered his protege), Wasim Akram may please the frontbenchers, but at a big ticket event, go native.Number of batsmen fielded by India in various positions in last 10 ODIs this seasonClick here to EnlargeAt the World Cup, it may help to find a savvy local, say Andy Roberts, who understands local conditions. Bruce Reid did in Australia, 2003-04. The local nails down the right lengths to bowl, short-cuts a touring team’s trials and errors, and passes on his knowledge.Former South African paceman Fanie De Villiers offered a tip to the tourists, “The Indian bowlers need to use the crease better because of the extra bounce.” And then asked, “Are they doing it? Are they getting good advice?”. The team’s assistant coach, biomechanist Ian Frazer was an opening batsman in Australian first-class cricket.The bowling unit of every team needs guidance from a senior practising colleague or an old master. At the 2003 World Cup, the bowlers’ team used technology as a basis for every bowler’s net sessions. If the bowlers had worked out that Inzamam was susceptible to the incoming ball early in his innings, at net sessions the call would go out, “okay boys, this is Inzamam, now…”Each bowler would then try to replicate the strategy formulated for Inzamam during the computer sessions out on the training ground. In the end, the bowling unit made of diverse and eccentric talents, who played together for nearly a year took India into the World Cup final.Q. Are resources well used? Is the bench really EMPTY?No. Cards in a Las Vegas casino are shuffled less than the Indian batting. Four different batsmen and four pairs have opened for India this season, though admittedly injury played a part. Six different batsmen were played at No. 3 in 10 ODIs this season, five each at No. 4, 5 and 7.BRINGING BACK ZAK: Suddenly Zaheer Khan leads the bowlersThe batsmen in those slots have between them averaged 18.52 runs. Is there a connection? What comes first? Confidence or security? Former chairman of selectors Kiran More who was known to be in sync with the current team management, says, “We have the bench strength but it needs to be developed.”He recommends expanding the current touring squad strength from 15 to 16 and taking two rookies on for experience. Did his selection committee blood put too much faith in the young players blooded last season? Did no one anticipate such a rash of second season blues?advertisementMore says in reply, “Unless you are an exceptional talent, it always helps to play two-three seasons of domestic cricket.. I also think we should have more regular A-tours to tough countries and not Zimbabwe and Kenya. It is where you will spot players who perform in foreign conditions.”Q. Is blaming the system a mere FIG LEAF?Yes. No country ever went into such a wide-ranging debate on macro issues of national psychology and institutional cultures when the problem at hand is careless batting and inexperienced bowling. Ever seen Pakistan, New Zealand or even West Indies teams lose on tour and embark on dissertations about their first-class cricket?GLOOM: Ntini snares Virender SehwagPakistan’s first-class cricket is a slowly germinating idea, the West Indies Board is made up of fractious national bodies, and there have been machine guns brandished in Sri Lankan board elections.New Zealand have the smallest of player pools to choose from but even that, their head of coaching Rick Charlesworth recently declared, is out of bounds as an excuse for failure. All these teams have better recent results than India’s-by a good distance.The BCCI’s domestic structure has holes you can drive a Super Sopper through but it is not the source of all ills, a punching bag for failures on tour. “Definitely not,” says former India player and first-class veteran Sanjay Bangar, “People who have not gone through the grind, tend to downplay first class cricket. Those who have been through it really know how to appreciate what it offers.”While it is tough to replicate Perth and Durban in Pune and Dhanbad, under a two divisional format, the Ranji Trophy in particular is more competitive than it has been. Teams now have to travel outside their zones and during the course of a season criss-cross the country to play on a variety of wickets with varying conditions.This has been a season of the busting of myths, the unmaking of reputations and, in the light of recent results, the emptiness of jargon. All that the Indians have to do now is ask themselves one question: who can win them the World Cup in the West Indies?Not who they hope can, who they think can, who they wish would do so, but who, on the basis of the evidence at hand and the time at India’s disposal, have it in them to deliver.