Openers cause headaches for Kumble
It's ironic that a year that began with India celebrating a new opening combination has ended with them grappling over the choice of their top two. An age-old problem appeared to be sorting itself out but now it's exploded into their faces.
The New Year Test in Cape Town saw Dinesh Karthik open for the first time and, with six 50-plus scores in six Tests, took up the role like a duck would to water. Karthik was India's highest run-getter in the series in England and, along with Wasim Jaffer, went about setting the base for tall totals. Often it wasn't just a platform, it was a terminus.
Karthik's poor form during the Pakistan series caused a few ripples before Yuvraj Singh's magnificent 169 in Bangalore caused what Anil Kumble termed a "happy headache". After precisely one more Test that's looking more like a migraine right now.
A lot has happened over the last month or so: Karthik fell cheaply in his four innings as opener against Pakistan, Yuvraj cracked that hundred, Virender Sehwag, in poor domestic form, was picked in the squad to Australia on a hunch, Rahul Dravid, going through a lean phase, was asked to open, Dravid endured an agonising first innings at Melbourne, didn't score much in the second dig, and, India lost heavily. To add to their worries Wasim Jaffer, who kept scoring through all the early turbulence, also fell early in both his chances in Melbourne.
"If you look at our batting order then all seven of them are batting well," Kumble said of the line-up picked for the first Test, "and the other two openers, who could have possibly taken someone else's place, weren't really getting runs. It is a difficult position for me. If Viru and Dinesh Karthik were in great form then the choice would have been easier."
It's a hard choice for a captain but it's a strange statement too. Karthik has been off-colour since the Pakistan series and Sehwag has made more headlines for his failures rather than successes on the domestic circuit. Both were picked, it's been suggested, thanks largely to Kumble's backing. As a captain he would have expected this situation.
Neither were played in the tour match - probably because the first XI was decided by then anyway - and were largely left to face the bowling machine. India were left with no choice but to push Dravid up to open. Kumble said as much. "When Yuvraj is playing so well and we don't pick him, you say why not? Then when we put Rahul up the order and then make way for Yuvraj, you say 'no you shouldn't have done that'. There are always ifs and buts, but for me personally I need to look at the team dynamics and who is batting well."
Back-to-back Tests mean the team has little time to brainstorm. The SCG pitch appears to hold the key to their opening plans. Mitchell Johnson spoke about a "slow" pitch he had played on "not too long ago" but also added that he doesn't expect a similar pitch for the Test. There has been talk of the surface being a bit bouncier than normal, allowing the Australian pace bowlers an advantage.
If India see some good pace and carry on the surface, there would be a temptation to play Sehwag. It won't be a decision based on any logic but an outright shoot-in-the-dark gamble. It might be a spectacular flop but could, with chunks of luck, turn into a masterstroke. Kumble, who is normally known to be one to cover all bases, isn't someone who has relied on a gambler's instinct. He might still want to play it safe, hoping for the same seven to fire, but he would surely be tempted to attempt the punt. You wouldn't bet on it but a new year is supposed to be about surprises.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo