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Chance for Kaif to cement his place in Tests

S. Ram Mahesh

BIG ASSET: Mohammad Kaif's temperament should serve him well in Tests and his fielding is a plus point. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan

BULAWAYO: They are the biggest boots in Indian cricket and a dodgy elbow demands they be filled temporarily. When the Indian Test squad to Zimbabwe was named, the greatest interest centered around whether Sachin Tendulkar would go past Sunil Gavaskar's record 34 centuries. But the current Little Master hasn't recovered sufficiently; enter Mohammad Kaif with electric but substantially smaller cricketing feet.

The 24-year-old has been a near certainty in ODIs, but has flannelled himself in white just seven times. In many ways, Kaif's re-entry is an indication of what is happening around the world. A generation of fans is discovering the heroes they have grown up on are beginning to ache and creak. Refurbishment of batting line-ups has resulted in dragnets being spread far.

Rahul Dravid (32), Sachin Tendulkar (32), Sourav Ganguly (33) and V.V.S. Laxman (30) are in an age bracket that will cause India to look for bulk replacements. Kevin Pietersen and Michael Clarke, in an absorbing Ashes series, have shown what youth can do. While his talent chooses to express itself less flamboyantly, Kaif's grounded temperament should serve him well.

The man from Uttar Pradesh has risen through the ranks from Allahabad's sports hostels to captaining India to a victory in the junior World Cup in 2000 to making centuries in South Africa for the `A' side. In an era of multi-dimensional cricketers, Kaif's fielding has ensured a long enough international stint to hit the selectors' eyeballs.

Curiously, his `lesser' skill has helped him make the highest grade. Batting at six and seven in the instant format when the heat is on and technique is shown scant respect, Kaif's lofted cover drives, laps over the keeper and frenzied running helped India to a few wins (Natwest 2002 final for instance) but did little to enhance his skills.

Michael Bevan and Ajay Jadeja aren't exactly Test role models. Kaif has done well whenever promoted. In the 2003 World Cup against Pakistan — the mother of all pressure cookers — the lanky youngster went in at four, tamed Shoaib Akhtar's firebolts with measured drives from cover to long on and helped Tendulkar set India up.

Indifferent start

In Tests, Kaif had an indifferent start despite hitting India's winning runs in a match in Sri Lanka. His best moments came against Australia last year when he replaced an injured Tendulkar. "Against Australia, world champions, scoring against McGrath, Gillespie, Kasprowicz, Warne gave me great confidence. Though I didn't make the big one, I got a couple of fifties," says Kaif.

Despite a Test average of under 25 and two half centuries in 13 innings, things seem to be coming together for the right-hander. He was India's best batsman in the recently concluded Videocon tri-series with a century, a ninety and a sixty batting at number three.

"I'm really happy," says Kaif. "Not used to batting at three and four but the team management promoted me so feels good. In the future you'll find me different batsman. Might be the turn around."

Kaif is not unduly worried about his failure (he was caught behind for four) in the warm-up match.

"It was a lazy shot. We've been travelling, so I am working very hard on just watching the red ball. Very different from white ball. Just watching the ball early, playing late."

Working on his footwork

He has also been working on his footwork and technique in the nets, playing Ian Frazer's meaty throw downs from 12 yards. While conventional technique is not a pre-requisite for success, Kaif does many things right. From an unusually stiff stance with a twitch like a facial tick, a steady head comprehends the length. The legs move well.

The Indian fondness for turning to on doesn't compromise his ability through the off. And he plays well off the backfoot — a customised pull and a backfoot punch jostle with the square cut.

"This tour — am not really looking at short term. I have long term goals," says Kaif. "I don't know the position I'll bat, but I want to set a base for the side. I have done that in domestic matches."

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