Indian selectors in familiar muddle
As the national selectors sit down to pick separate Indian squads for the upcoming tours of Ireland and England, the task will be anything but easy, given the number of options available to them. It's a familiar muddle, further complicated by last-minute injury worries over a few fast bowlers, which in turn raises questions about the fitness standards. While no player, with the exception of Manoj Tiwary, has definitely been ruled out of the tour, the challenge that awaits the selection committee is to pick two sets of 15 fit players.
Of all the slots in the Test squad for England, perhaps only the wicketkeeper's seems secure, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni the number one choice for both teams. Dinesh Karthik lends a great deal of flexibility in his dual role as reserve wicketkeeper and opening batsman. The gamble of sending Karthik in with Wasim Jaffer paid off at the fag end of the tour of South Africa and during the Test series in Bangladesh, relieving the team management of at least one major headache.
Karthik's presence leaves the committee needing to pick just one reserve opener. Gautam Gambhir, in and out of the squad, scored a century in the one-dayers against Bangladesh and should receive strong backing despite missing out on selection for the Tests against Bangladesh. However, doubts remain over the efficacy of his technique in seam-friendly conditions, and that could just leave the door ajar for Aakash Chopra, Gambhir's fellow Delhi opener. Chopra was impressive on the tour of Australia in 2003-04, and his calming influence helped Virender Sehwag play his natural game. Chopra's name did the rounds recently and his experience as a league cricketer in England could make his selection a credible one.
Perhaps the biggest conundrum for the committee is Sehwag. He flattered to deceive in Bangladesh, and in the Afro Asia Cup, failed to convert good starts. Impressive in patches, he could be slotted into the middle order, though he will have to fight for a place with Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. The man left on the outside to look in may be VVS Laxman, and it's his misfortune that he has been tossed around, never sure of his place.
It's in the bowling department that the selectors have a plethora of options. Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel have been declared fit for selection, albeit at the last minute. Munaf still remains the most brittle of the lot, and if the committee opts for more backup, Ajit Agarkar could get a look in. Sreesanth, VRV Singh, RP Singh and Ishant Sharma are the other options, with Sreesanth having been the pick of India's bowlers in South Africa.
As has been the norm in recent times, the committee might stick to the policy of picking two specialist spinners, with Anil Kumble leading the pack. Harbhajan Singh and Ramesh Powar will compete for the offspinner's slot, and it will be interesting to see if Harbhajan eventually wins the confidence of the selectors. He was impressive in the final match of the Afro Asia Cup, taking 3 for 48 in a high scoring game in Chennai. Rajesh Pawar, the left-arm spinner, didn't get a game in Bangladesh and if the selectors opt for a left-armer to partner Kumble, it could be a toss up between him and Murali Kartik, another player who has been in the wilderness for a couple of seasons.
The Ireland one-dayers might just be about giving opportunities to fresher faces, but all thoughts will invariably be on the Test squad chosen for England. Australia were the last team to win a series there, all of six years ago, and there won't be room for either sentiment or experimentation when it comes to writing down those 15 names.