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The Indian selectors announced the Test, one-day and T20 squad for the upcoming tour of New Zealand earlier today. While most of the selections were along expected lines - the batsmen pick themselves, and the selectors opted for M Vijay, who gave a account of himself opening against Australia - the names in the pace department held some surprises. L Balaji finds himself back in the Test squad after a good comeback season in domestic cricket, while Sreesanth, who returned to the domestic circuit after a long injury lay-off has been overlooked. However, the story of the day is the selection of Dhawal Kulkarni, the 20-year old new-ball bowler from Mumbai. Kulkarni was pitchforked into the limelight with an impressive performance in last year's IPL and is the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy this season.
TA Sekhar, the man who oversaw the MRF Pace Foundation, analyses Kulkarni's strengths
TA Sekhar: As far as Kulkarni is concerned, he bowls at around 130kph, he is a youngster and it's a learning curve for him. His domestic performance has been rewarded, and I think he deserves a place. Since RP Singh and Sreesanth are not match-fit even though they played a couple of matches, we had no other fast bowlers backing up.
Apart from showcasing his bowling the abilities, the IPL also showed Kulkarni's willingness to learn, says Harsha Bhogle, someone who closely observed Kulkarni's interactions with the Mumbai Indians.
Harsha Bhogle: I liked two things about him. One was that he kept improving as the season went along which is always an indicator of whether someone is a good bowler or not. Two: he was very eager to learn. No one learnt more from having Shaun Pollock in the team than him. He would keep asking Pollock what he needs to do and one of the things that Pollock told him was: be your own guy, see your own strengths and don't try and bowl like somebody else. He learnt a lot from being with Pollock and the others.
Balaji makes a comeback in the Test squad while Sreesanth has been overlooked. Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar believes that it is a wise decision by the selectors.
Sanjay Manjrekar: If I was the captain and I would look for somebody to bank on. Sreesanth is an interesting talent - he makes things happen. But having looked at his career in the past few years, he is not somebody you can bank on. He lets you down with his fitness and sometimes with his performance on the field. So it is a bit of a gamble every time you pick him. What the selectors have done is that they have gone for a more senior and dependable player like Balaji. Obviously his ability to swing the ball has been looked at, as an asset in New Zealand.
Former India batsman WV Raman believes Balaji's comeback is a combination of hard work and his mental endurance.
WV Raman: Three years ago it was a clear case of Balaji running into problems due to his action, in the sense it was a mixed action. Once we identified the cause then we set about trying to rectify the action and also tinker around with his run-up and his basic acceleration. So even before he went in for the surgery, when we tried out this drill he said he felt comfortable but eventually he had to go through surgery. Then of course, after the surgery we had to bring in a lot of experts in terms of biomechanics, physiotherapy and training experts. Balaji was given a programme which he followed diligently, and then we set about working on the cricketing aspects, about three to four months after the surgery. Of course the training was handled by Ramji Sreenivasan who did a fantastic job. So slowly but surely Balaji made a steady progress.
Here was a situation where a guy who felt that maybe he would never be able to play cricket again realised he could just do it. It was great to see Balaji put in a lot of effort and keep his head despite what happened in the last three years. In terms of pre-injury Balaji and post-injury Balaji, I don't see many changes except for the fact that he is bowling a shade slower. But the fact remains that here is one guy who is playing after a long lay-off and he has got progressively better even in terms of pace and I am sure that once he gets going, his pace will also come back. Basically it's a question of trying to get his rhythm back and also preserve the rhythm that he gets. Eventually, it's a well-deserved success for somebody who was very keen to work hard and very keen to come back to the game which he loves dearly. And considering what happened last season, it was just the question of when he was going to be called back.
The bulk of the bowling will be shouldered by Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, which Sekhar believes will be a big risk.
TAS: The bowling will basically be revolving around Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, again, because Munaf Patel was out with injury and is making a comeback into the team. I think it's quite a load on Zaheer and Ishant. I feel that if it's going to be three Test matches and then five one-dayers, and after coming back they have to play IPL, by the time they get to the Twenty20 World Cup, they will be a bit drained. I don't know how the Indian team management is going to handle that issue. The board needs to address this issue of bowlers losing form and getting injured. Venkatesh Prasad is doing a great job, but still he doesn't have time on his hands to look at how the people who are not in the Indian team are doing. Just going to National Cricket Academy is not going to help. Who the expert is in imparting the knowledge is very important there.
While there are no surprises in the batting department for the Tests, the selectors have chosen to go in without a back-up middle-order batsman, opting for an extra opener in M Vijay. But Manjrekar believes this might not be such a problem for the team
SM: Well at first look you do feel that they don't have a reserve middle-order batsman, but when you look at it there is Vijay, though more as an opening batsman. But Dinesh Karthik is the guy the Indian team is looking at in case there is an emergency and you need to play another middle-order batsman. Karthik obviously is back in the team, not so much due to his wicketkeeping but due to the sheer weight of the runs that he had in the domestic circuit. And I am sure that he will be the man that India will look to if required.
But what could be a big problem for the India, according to Manjrekar is that there are no practice games scheduled before the Tests.
SM: I think this is more scary than not having a genuine reserve middle-order batsman. It's something I have talked about earlier when I saw the itinerary. It's a full cricket tour lasting almost two months and to not have a side game, for someone like me who played in the 1980s and 90s, is something I find absolutely shocking. But what was also interesting to see was when I discussed this with Virender Sehwag, he said, 'It's good. Why waste time playing warm-up games, when we can have nets or rest?' So Sehwag doesn't miss it at all, but I am sure that people like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman would have not minded a warm-up game before the Tests. But the fact also remains that none of these three senior players - from what we have seen - have approached the BCCI, or have said they want a practice game. We have to assume that they are happy with the itinerary so good luck to them.
With Sriram Veera and Ranjit Shinde, this is Akhila Ranganna for Cricinfo