October 6, 1999

A few surprises in the Indian team

Nayan Mongia, Md Azharuddin and Nikhil Chopra out. Devang Gandhi, Harbhajan Singh and Sunil Joshi in. The Indian team for the first Test against New Zealand commencing at Mohali from October 10 announced on Wednesday was not without surprises.

Most of the players picked themselves. The names of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sadagoppan Ramesh, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Debashish Mohanty, Anil Kumble, Vijay Bhardwaj and Ajay Jadeja were on almost every cricket follower's list. The fringe cases included Mongia (or MSK Prasad), Azharuddin, Chopra, Joshi and Jacob Martin while there was some talk that Devang Gandhi stood an outside chance of selection.

Considering this background, the selection of the 14 for the first Test has acouple of surprises. First, let's consider the case of Azharuddin. The 36-year-old former Indian captain after shoulder surgery after the World Cup ended in June, went through a long period of recuperation. After details of Sachin Tendulkar's back problem became public, Azharuddin, perhaps wanting to be extra careful, again went to London for a check up. In the meantime, he took part in the Moin ud Dowlah tournament in Hyderabad, did reasonably well, said he felt fine and even produced a fitness certificate to the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Certainly after all this, he would have thought he deserved a place, especially given his proven skill and experience. But it was not to be and he will have to bide his time.

As regards Mongia, it was a straight contest between him and MSK Prasad. One school of thought would have preferred the return of the more experienced Mongia but then in Prasad's favour, he had done well in the recent tournaments, he was younger and he had proved that he could also contribute his mite with the bat.

Chopra was almost in everyone's list of 14 for the Test. The off spinner, on his performance of late, seemed to have virtually clinched the second spinner's spot in the face of competition from Joshi and Harbhajan Singh. His omission from the squad is certainly a surprise and Chopra has every reason to feel disappointed. But the fighter that he is, Chopra is bound to fight back.

Now to the surprise inclusions. There was some talk of Bengal's Devang Gandhi being one of the contenders for the opener's slot. There was no certain partner for Ramesh and while in some quarters, opinion was that Jadeja or Ganguly could be asked to open to facilitate more batsmen in the middle order, the selectors obviously felt that the time had come to try out specialist opening batsmen. They did try out the combination of Ramesh and VVS Laxman last season but this was only partly successful. So it was back to the drawing board for them and so in all likelihood there is likely to be a new set of opening batsmen at Mohali.

The inclusion of Joshi and Harbhajan to augment the spin of Kumble is obviously because the selectors feel that the New Zealanders may be weak against the turning ball. Of course Joshi had done well of late and Harbhajan has not done badly in the few Tests he has played. But it is highly unlikely that all the three spinners will play in the final eleven.

As I said, the inclusion of the other players was more or less on expected lines. But great interest will again centre on the final combination that will take the field. All in all, it seems a well balanced side, strong enough to keep intact India's fine record against New Zealand in this country. New Zealand have won only two Tests against India's nine while ten matches have been drawn so far.

The Indian squad: Sachin Tendulkar (captain), Ajay Jadeja, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sadagoppan Ramesh, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Debashish Mohanty, Anil Kumble, MSK Prasad, Devang Gandhi, Harbhajan Singh, Vijay Bhardwaj and Sunil Joshi.