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Yuvraj Singh. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Yuvraj Singh. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Test bench strength

A brief lull can help players recoup, tend to injuries, and prepare themselves mentally

There are still a few hours to go for the first match of the Asia Cup as I write this. Hosts Bangladesh are to play India, and the debate is centred around Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s fitness.

A back spasm had caused the Indian captain enough pain and the team management enough concern to fly out Parthiv Patel—whose start-stop-start career makes a fascinating story—as backup wicketkeeper.

A Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) official who did not want to be named told me playing in the Asia Cup was very demanding on the players. “A three-week break from matches, but spent in a camp, would have been more beneficial,’’ he said.

This is not entirely unfounded. The Indian team has been on the road since October, playing South Africa at home before a whirlwind tour Down Under and, lastly, a three-match Twenty20 (T20) series against Sri Lanka.

Before Dhoni suffered the spasm problem, Mohammed Shami had failed a fitness test for the Asia Cup. There is also some concern about young paceman Jasprit Bumrah’s fitness, apart from the overkill of cricket for some who have been playing non-stop.

International sportspersons in all disciplines have punishing workloads these days, but sometimes it’s the scheduling of tournaments that becomes questionable. A brief lull can help players recoup, tend to injuries, prepare themselves mentally, etc.

As it happens, most non-Asian teams have at least a two-week break before arriving in India for the World T20 tournament. Meanwhile, teams from the subcontinent will be battling it out for the Asia Cup over the next fortnight.

However, there is a flip side to this argument, which also has merit. This time, the Asia Cup has been tweaked. What would normally have been One Day Internationals have been recast as T20 matches which provide participating teams greater scope to prepare for the World Cup.

In the circumstances, I would lean towards the view that this is advantageous. Be that as it may, the quandary now for the Indian team is whether Dhoni should play if he recovers, or whether he should play it safe and set his sights on the World Cup.

This is the blue riband tournament of the year in cricket and, Dhoni, despite not scoring big runs, remains arguably the team’s most potent player in this format; this, apart from his vast captaincy experience.

A low-risk strategy for Dhoni seems more prudent. But this should be counterbalanced by a more daring approach where the rest of the team is concerned, without compromising on the ambition of winning the tournament of course.

Why is this necessary? In the last six T20 matches played, India have had a virtually unchanged team. This means that the bench strength has remained untested. The players have been chosen on the basis of excellent performances in domestic tournaments, but at the international level it is a different ball game.

For instance, Harbhajan Singh, who could be hugely effective on Indian pitches, has not played a single match. Ajinkya Rahane is another player whose place looks iffy, though he has been arguably the most consistent Indian batsman across formats in all conditions and situations in the past couple of years.

While the playing XI has looked well settled, winning five of the six matches played before the Asia Cup, trying out the reserves is imperative in the context of the World Cup—if only to understand the options better. Loss of form and injury in sport can come unannounced, and it can become very daunting for a player who has been warming the bench for weeks to suddenly come out and excel under pressure.

Apart from trying out the reserves, there is also a need to shuffle the batting around to provide opportunities to those who have not had much time in the middle to get into the groove. Yuvraj Singh is a case in point. His two big hits in the final over of the last T20 match against Australia helped India make a clean sweep of the series, but, perhaps more importantly, also ensured his selection for the World Cup squad. Since then, though, Yuvraj has had little chance to find his batting touch. As a “finisher", he would bat lower down of course, but playing him at No.3 or 4 in a couple of matches in the Asia Cup could go a long way in helping him grow in confidence.

Of course, experimentation does not mean diluting effort or focus. The Asia Cup is prestigious, and winning a tournament is the raison d’être for participation in sports.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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