North's rising power in the Indian team

THE POPULAR language in the Indian dressing room today is Punjabi. It used to be Marathi for a long time and then Kannada for some time. Of course, Sachin Tendulkar's dictat to speak a language understood by all when he was leading the side may have irritated a few but it was done to maintain some transparency. The policy remains unchanged, coach John Wright being excluded from this arrangement.

Today, when Harbhajan Singh cracks a joke and Harvinder Singh comes up with another, with four others in splits, the strong representation of North Zone in the Indian team comes to the fore in a pleasant manner.

It also speaks for the rise of North's cricket, once so glowingly characterised by the dominance of Bishan Singh Bedi-inspired cricketers from Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. Players like Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath, Chetan Chauhan, Madan Lal, Chetan Sharma, Ashok Malhotra, Yashpal Sharma, Maninder Singh, Manoj Prabhakar, Raman Lamba were members of the glorious era when North produced quality cricketers with an ability to serve the national team.

There was a time when North enjoyed a huge presence in the Indian team. At one point, the number of players coming from North was seven and it did create a healthy rivalry, especially with the cricketers from West Zone.

The situation is quite similar today with North being represented by Harbhajan, Harvinder, Dinesh Mongia, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Virender Sehwag and Ashish Nehra, and some waiting in their shadows. Harbhajan's exploits are too well known to be documented here while Nehra was the pick of the bowlers in Zimbabwe. ``I'm sure he will bowl long for India,'' the Karnataka speedstar J. Srinath said on the Delhi left-arm seamer's potential.

Harbhajan's astonishing strikes against the Australians at home may have shut the door temporarily on state-mate and off-spinner Sarandeep Singh but there is always the possibility of the latter finding a place in the side.

The rise and decline of Delhi wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya was rapid. As was the case with Yuveraj Singh, who would need to work very hard if he has to rid the image that he has created. The selectors have been least impressed with his attitude towards the game and his teammates and that remains the only reason for the Punjab youngster not being able to make it to the team to Zimbabwe. There can be no doubt about his potential and it will be a pity if Yuveraj is lost to the team because of non- cricketing reasons.

The selectors need to be complimented for retaining Punjab left- hander Dinesh Mongia, who hardly got a decent chance in the one- day series against Australia. He is a batsman with a splendid temperament and it is this quality which won him a place ahead of Yuveraj.

Mongia has the right technique to play the role of a grafter even though Sunil Gavaskar remains unconvinced about the Punjab batsman's technique against fast bowling. Not much of footwork, Gavaskar commented during one of his commentary stints. It would do the young Mongia a world of good if he seeks the guidance of Gavaskar, who is always willing to help anyone who approaches him, to sort the technical shortcomings. In the series earlier, V. V. S. Laxman, Das and Tendulkar had, at various points, spent time with the maestro to pick up a few valuable tips.

Sodhi comes off the most committed cricketer, making up for his average potential with some hard work. A very keen learner, Sodhi signifies the modern cricketer - fit and focussed on giving his best and working on improvement in every aspect of his game if he has to qualify as an all- rounder in limited overs cricket. ``I like the lad's attitude,'' was a big line of encouragement for the Punjab youngster from Wright.

Sehwag is not a new face, having made his debut two years ago against the Pakistanis. It is a very crucial stage for him as he gets another opportunity to provide depth to the strong Indian batting line up and also fill in as a useful bowler and qualify as an all-rounder of some merit at this level.

In the last few years, Punjab has come to dominate cricket in the North and the selectors have done well to take notice of the performances of these cricketers. Mongia and Harvinder, who now plays for Railways, have their tough grooming to thank for gaining the selectors' nod. Having impressed the team management with his talent, Mongia has been sounded to prepare himself for the opener's slot in the forthcoming season, what with Wright being convinced not to shuttle the gifted Hemang Badani anymore in the batting order.

There are quite a few youngsters waiting for a timely break in North. For Ravneet Ricky, it might pay to come up with consistent scores and stake his claims for the opener's job. The team management is keen to add a specialist opener to push the pair of Ramesh and Das on the tour to Sri Lanka. Delhi's Akash Chopra may not yet be in the same league but he has shown the promise to improve.

For someone like Gagandeep Singh, the comeback of Harvinder should be an inspiration. A good seamer with the ability to reverse swing, Gagandeep can be an effective bowler on slightly helpful tracks, and is rated by batsmen on the circuit as a deceptive seamer.

The possibility of Haryana wicketkeeper Ajay Ratra making it to the Indian team in the near future should be bright. It is time the selectors took another look at Sameer Dighe and handed Ratra the cap when he looks ready to assume the role. The team management is also keen on including two wicketkeepers in all the tours this season.

With talk of rotation policy for the bowlers gaining ground, the selectors might be tempted to rotate a few batsmen too, depending upon the nature of assignment. Of course, there are many players outside North waiting for selection and it will be one healthy race among the players. The beneficiary, of course, will be Indian cricket.