New Delhi: The final World Cup squad is out. There are 15 of them and they promise India the World Cup. The national selectors have retained the same 15 who played in the last ODI against Sri Lanka at Rajkot.
This means Virender Sehwag and all-rounder Irfan Pathan are in for the mega event in the Caribbean Islands that begins on March 13. Sachin Tendulkar has been retained as the vice-captain. The selectors have decided to go with five seamers at the expense of an extra spinner.
But is this cricket team good enough to win the World Cup in 2007? That's the question a panel of experts dealt with in the CNN-IBN special show Face The Nation, hosted by Rajdeep Sardesai.
It's the moment cricket fans across India had been waiting for with bated breath. After all the experiments and all the heated debate, the names of the 15 men, who will wear the treasured blue shirt for India in the West Indies World Cup, are out.
Rahul Dravid will lead the squad that includes nine members from the team that had reached the final of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
"How we perform in the World Cup depends largely on how the key players, supported by the rest of the players, perform. That's what the focus really should be on," Dravid said immediately after the team was announced.
But the is the middle-order batting of the Indian team still fragile? There aren't the kind of finishers that a team needs in one-day cricket. India doesn't have strong players on slots No. 5, 6 and 7. Is that the problem at the moment?
Mahinder Amarnath, the man who was the Man of the Match in 1983 when India won the cricket World Cup title for the first and only time, agrees this is a problem area mainly "because of Yuvraj Singh's injury. I am not sure how fit he is or how fit he is going to be when India starts its World Cup campaign," he says.
Amarnath, in fact, believes that "a fit Yuvraj is very critical for the World Cup from India' point of view. "If you see the last one year of Indian cricket, wherever Yuvraj had played, he has done well. And wherever India has won, he has been a part of that particular win. That's why Yuvraj's contribution is going to be very important."
That brings in a very logical question about Virender Sehwag. If he goes at number 6, as people are now suggesting, is he also going to play a critical role? Can Sehwag possibly play the role of an explosive No 6? Or should he continue to open?
"I think No 6 is too far," says Amarnath. "We have got to see how well we start the innings. The opening slots are very important. Uthappa and Sourav Ganguly have opened here, but you don't know who will be the openers there."
Amarnath says his personal choice for the openers' slots will be two experienced cricketers. "I would go with the experienced guys. With Sourav Ganguly, I would like to see Sachin coming back to open when the tournament starts. The first few games are very important. Then you can work out later on. Tendulkar can bat at No 4 or 5 and, thus, you can play around with Tendulkar."
There was a question mark over Sehwag when the team was being selected. There were even reports that the selection committee was divided on this question. Is Sehwag still the kind of person Indian needs to win a World Cup?
"Yes," says Milind Rege, former Mumbai captain and selector. He says he believes that Sehwag is the kind of person India needs to win the World Cup.
"Because he is an explosive player. He is the kind of player, who has always won matches for you. I would have been happier if Sehwag had played the earlier four games against West Indies. Because if he was going to go to the West Indies for the World Cup, I saw no reason why they didn't give him an opportunity to play the first four games. He could have got back into his groove and I sincerely feel that he should open the innings because he is the kind of person who can thrash all kinds of attacks, especially on flat wickets."
The next question, obviously, centres around the all-rounder. Does the Indian team lack a genuine all-rounder? Dhoni is being seen as an all-rounder, Karthik is seen as an all-rounder. But with Irfan Pathan not doing well at the moment, the all-rounder tag is perhaps where India is lacking.
VB Chandrasekhar, a national selector and former Test player, agrees. "We have been on search for the past two-and-a-half year, but we never found anyone. The disturbing thing is Irfan is losing the kind of form that he showed earlier. That's where we really lack. The other aspect being that the tail is really too long and we really don't have the finishers because the tail is too long for the Indian team."
Does it then mean this team is lacking the kind of cricketers that India boasted of in 1983, players who can bowl 10 over and can also score 40-50 runs?
Amarnath doesn't think so. "There are guys like Tendulkar and Sehwag in the team, who can bowl and bat. Even Yuvraj can bowl and bat. It all depends on the conditions. And when one tries to compare it with 1983 World Cup, the wickets were different, mind you. They were seaming wickets. Here, we don't know what kind of wickets they are going to play out."
Nobody really knows if the wickets in West Indies are going to be the key. Should the wickets be slow and low wickets, where players like Tendulkar and Sehwag can bowl those four or five overs? How critical is it?
According to Amarnath, spinners are going to play a crucial part on these strips. "Because, when you have new wickets and prepared wickets, you don't know how they are going to play. So the stroke-play can be difficult. I personally feel that batting is going to be tough in those conditions."
Milind Rege feels cricketers who can give those five-six overs and score runs are going to be critical in West Indies. "That's why I felt bad when Romesh Powar was not selected. He is an outstanding bowler, who can bat a bit. And when we talk of all-rounders that need to be taken in the team, he, for one, could have fitted in."
Supposing Powar was taken, it's another puzzle as to who would he have replaced in the present team. "I would have probably gone with a single wicket-keeper, if at all. Because there is no place for Uthappa and Karthik in the same XI. I would have gone with one more option of taking a spinner with me. But overall, this is a good side that has been selected," says Rege.
Amarnath doesn't think Karthik has been picked as a wicket-keeper batsman. "I think he has been picked as a batsman. He has done well in South Africa. Even in South Africa, he was playing more as a batsman than a wicket-keeper."
"He may not be among the best seven batsmen in India today. But the way he has been batting, he has been very impressive. He has done well against quick bowlers in the South African tour and he has done well in domestic cricket as well as the home series."
Given a choice, Amarnath would have preferred less number of seamers. "Because you have Tendulkar. He can do a number of jobs. He can bowl medium-pace, if the wickets are helpful for seaming. Then you have Sourav Ganguly, who could have done the job as a medium-pacer. Then you could have had Romesh Powar as a third spinner."
Another question that each cricket lover is asking today is who will bowl in the crucial death overs? This has become a big issue in the recent years. Does India have those bowlers who can bowl consistently in the last 10-15 overs?
VB Chandrasekhar, one of the selectors, points to Munaf Patel as an option.
"We have been trying out someone like Anil Kumble in the recent matches, but it's not really working out. I think the spinners should be looking at picking up wickets in the middle overs, which would make it a lot easier to go into the death overs. In the death overs, I certainly think somebody like Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel and Agarkar - people who have bowled well in West Indies. We certainly have the distinct advantage of having toured West Indies, played matches there. We haven't too badly there. Although we lost 4-1, most of the matches were pretty close. The death overs will possibly go with Munaf."
As someone who was in West Indies recently as a selector, does he believe spinners hold the key? Can spin bowling in the middle overs make a difference?
"It will certainly make a huge difference. And much of the planning over the last two years has actually happened with this feeling of the conditions in the West Indies. And if you have noticed, we have even tried somebody like Dinesh Mongia. But sadly, it didn't work out the way the team would have expected it to. So they have gone back to some experience. There is huge experience in Anil Kumble. Certainly Romesh Powar must be feeling left out. But there is only room for two spinners. And not to forget that we have people like Sourav Ganguly, who can bowl.
One also tends to wonder if the best players in this team are past their prime! After a lot of experiments with the youngsters, India has gone back to the experienced. Is old gold or is it a little rusted?
"For the first 14 months we continued to experiment with so many youngsters, and suddenly when the big thing came up, the World Cup, the selectors decided - and rightly so - to go back to the experienced men. World Cup is a huge thing. I think they have done the right thing by selecting the older ones," Rege points out.
So then, was it a mistake to try those youngsters and should India have stuck to the Gangulys and Zaheer Khans through the last 12 months?
"In such an event, they would have grown a lot more older then what they are at this point in time if you had to try them in the last two years," argues Chandrasekhar.
"The point was to try as many people, which was not really attempted in the last six months. The real reason why somebody like Sehwag has gone out of form and is struggling to find his form is because we didn't try real options. Now, we have very limited opportunities to test people. So we have stuck with the older lot. We have tried the best and it's looking like lot of elimination happened. I am sure lot of people sitting down would have picked the same 15," he says.
When asked to rate the present squad in comparison with the 2003 squad, Amarnath agrees that the "2003 squad was better because Tendulkar, in particular, was in the peak. People of his league are four years older now."
"But then experience helps at times. The problem with the Indian batting is not the talent or their performance in the past, it's the wicket. When we play on flat wickets, we have no problems. If the wickets are good for batting, they will score very heavily in the West Indies. If the wickets are slightly on the other side, there is a problem," Amarnath feels.
All said and done, is the team good enough to win the World Cup?
"If India can reach the semi-finals, India have as good a chance as any other team to win the World Cup," feels Rege.
"It will be a struggle. It depends on how they run up to the World Cup," says Chandrasekhar. "I am sure they will qualify for the final eight. But then it all depends how the experienced batsmen come through. It all depends on batting and how the spinners do the job. Fielding too be a big problem and the tail will be huge. These are the things they need to cover up for," he observes
Amarnath has a straight and candid answer. "In current form, no (India is not good enough to win the World Cup)," says he.
In the audience poll on the key question - is the team good enough to win the World Cup? - only 34 per cent said yes while 66 per cent voted in the negative.
"Class is permanent, form is temporary," says Rajdeep Sardesai. "Who knows, come the World Cup, the Indian team might just cut the corner!" And like him, most cricket fans in India will hope against hope that India will get back the coveted cup after 24 years of long wait.