RP Singh's selection reflects India's tragicomic series
If any proof was needed that this England series is turning out to be a tragicomic one for India, it came when RP Singh was told at the very last minute to strip off his training gear, tie his bootlaces and rush onto the field at The Oval to deliver the first over of the final Test. Now remember, this is RP Singh, a man who played his last Test on a flat track at Motera in 2008. The last time he bowled in a first-class match was in the Duleep Trophy for Central Zone versus South Zone, between January 26-29, where he got just three wickets in the 522-run defeat. This was a bowler who India had pulled out of cold storage, once the full extent of Zaheer Khan's injury was revealed, a bowler who was re-entering the Test arena on the back of delivering 50 overs in 14 IPL matches.
As RP Singh sprayed five out of his first six deliveries onto, or sometimes behind, England's openers' pads, at a pace that made it inappropriate to term him a fast bowler, people began to wonder if this was joke. On match-day eve, MS Dhoni said India were not desperate, or thinking about winning or avoiding defeat at any cost. The way they started today, it seemed they were desperate to avoid playing at any cost.
At the end of the day, RP Singh revealed that Praveen Kumar had pulled out of the Test at the last possible minute. There was nothing in the morning warm-up sessions that suggested RP Singh would play; he was seen striding in delicately, delivering harmless punches at VVS Laxman in the nets. In fact, on the scorecards printed by the ECB, P Kumar was listed as No. 9 under the India column.
"This morning after the warm-up when PK [Praveen] said he was not fit for the match, that is when the coach [Duncan Fletcher] came to me and told me I was playing," RP Singh said.
He did not deny that he was "nervous". Fair enough. But then he also said that "gradually I got my line and length back". The two spells he bowled in the little play possible today read: 7-2-19-0 from the Vauxhall End and then 3-1-5-0 from the Pavilion End. Economical, yes, but in conditions that were overcast and with a new ball in hand, he failed to beat the outside edge even once. At the media conference, he said that between his last trip to England in 2007, a series where he kept the England batsmen on their toes in the company of Zaheer Khan, and now he had equipped himself with an additional weapon - swinging the ball in to the left-handers. But today there was not one ball that he could bend in past the defence of Andrew Strauss or Alistair Cook.
Despite his lack of first-class outings in recent times, and looking clearly rust at The Oval, RP Singh said he was match-fit. "I played the IPL and a few club matches. In India, the domestic four-day season is between September and March but I played a few one-day games and the IPL so I am fit for these matches."
RP Singh may come in for some criticism for his insipid performance on the first day, but can you really blame a bowler who has been struggling with form and fitness issues in the last few years for being ineffective? The big question is why and how did he become Zaheer's replacement. Was it more out of hope than belief that the selectors picked him. Were they simply thinking about the fact that RP Singh had done so well during the victorious 2007 series and not about his recent performances? Importantly, why does Munaf Patel, a more permanent member of the India squad in the recent past, and a smart bowler who was a critical part of the World Cup-winning team, continue to warm the bench? What sort of inference does he derive when a bowler who has not featured for India in two years is played ahead of him?
These and many other burning questions will continue to be asked in the coming days and weeks.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo