February 20, 2001

Hirwani earns surprise call-up for Mumbai Test

The national selectors sprang a surprise by recalling Narendra Hirwani for the first Test against Australia at Mumbai. The 32-year-old leg spinner was the only contentious inclusion in the 14 man team announced in Mumbai on Wednesday. Harbhajan Singh and Rahul Sanghvi are the other two spinners in the line-up while the selectors did not go beyond the tried and tested trio of Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan in their hunt for new ball practitioners. Other minor debating points saw Nayan Mongia pip Vijay Dahiya for the keeper's slot and Hemang Badani complete the roster as the seventh specialist batsman.

Before the India A game, Venkatapathy Raju and Sharandeep Singh were believed to be the frontrunners in the complex race for the three spinning positions. They had to cool their heels in frustration as Sanghvi and Harbhajan grabbed the lifeline offered by the warm-up exercise in Nagpur to press their claims. Sanghvi's resting in the second innings against Australia on Monday was a transparent indication he was being drafted into the Test squad. The leftarm spinner is one of only two players in the 14 yet to win a Test cap but he has played 10 ODI's for 10 wickets dating back to 1998/99. Harbhajan Singh had to bowl 20 overs in the second innings before convincing the selectors on the same count. He is the only survivor of India's spin attack from the home series against Australia four seasons ago, having made his debut in the third Test at Bangalore.

Hirwani, not in the original list of 25 probables, was called up for the second phase of the conditioning camp after the Challenger Series. Having taken just ten wickets in five first-class games in the 2000-2001 domestic season, his belated summoning was a clear sign the team management was unhappy with the talent on display at the camp. The dramatic turn of events tipped Hirwani, who last played for India against South Africa at Calcutta in November 1996, for selection and in just three days at the camp he built a case strong enough to convince John Wright & Co. of his merits.

Mongia was another who used the India A opportunity to good effect. Although he played a hand in only one of the 19 Australian dismissals in the game, Mongia's level headed unbeaten 71 tilted the balance decisively in his favour. The decision is undoubtedly a trifle harsh on the present incumbent Vijay Dahiya who did a competent job with the gloves against Zimbabwe. Sourav Ganguly had thrown his weight behind Dahiya at the Chennai camp and the choice is widely seen as a rap on the knuckles to the Indian skipper for speaking out of turn.

Going head to head for the seventh batting slot, Hemang Badani and Dinesh Mongia both went for ducks but it was impossible to overlook the Tamil Nadu left hander who has already proved himself at the highest level. VVS Laxman engineered an inevitable comeback, taken for granted ever since his tremendous run of success in domestic cricket, which fetched 10 centuries in 10 successive first class games at one stage. As for the seamers, Zaheer Khan held out Aashish Nehra's determined bid to sneak into the squad but he is unlikely to make the final XI in the presence of Srinath and Agarkar.

The team leaves India with just six survivors from the 1997/98 series in Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Srinath, Laxman and Harbhajan. Certainly the pace attack is far stronger when one recalls India opening with Harvinder Singh and Ganguly at Bangalore in that series. The motley group of Messrs. Hirwani, Harbhajan and Sanghvi, with a combined tally of 87 wickets in 25 Tests, are not the most daunting however. Given the frenetic buildup to the contest in the past few weeks, the rope given them will be very short indeed.

The team: SS Das, S Ramesh, SR Tendulkar, *SC Ganguly, R Dravid, VVS Laxman, +NR Mongia, J Srinath, AB Agarkar, Z Khan, Harbhajan Singh, RL Sanghvi, ND Hirwani and HK Badani.