Five-bowler plan leaves Dhoni facing big call
For all his famous instinctive calls during games, MS Dhoni has hardly ever taken a bold decision as far as selecting the India XI is concerned. He took the enormous risk of promoting himself up the order during a World Cup final - and backed it with a match-winning knock - but he didn't even tinker with the batting order, forget changing personnel, during the eight consecutive losses in overseas Tests against England and Australia. Any change then would have involved taking calls on senior batsmen who, barring Rahul Dravid in England, had not been making big scores. Dhoni's statement today that India will most likely play five bowlers against Australia will force him to take such a decision tomorrow - leaving a senior batsman out of the XI.
"It is most likely that we will play with five bowlers but what the combination will be... we will see the wicket and it will depend on that as well," Dhoni said. "It will be a fresh wicket. We will see after the press conference and how it looks tomorrow before the match."
If Dhoni does go in with five bowlers, Virender Sehwag could be the man most likely to sit out. India played five bowlers against England in the group stage, resting Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and R Ashwin and opening the innings with Irfan Pathan instead in the 90-run win.
What makes Sehwag's case relatively weak is that he adds value only with the bat, and even that has diminished drastically in recent times. He's bowled only once in a Twenty20 international and he is the only batsman in the side who has to be hidden on the field. All the India middle-order batsmen give Dhoni bowling options and are sharp fielders. While the other opener Gautam Gambhir does not bowl and is not spectacular on the field, he is nowhere close to being a liability on it. As a captain, Dhoni is known to be not comfortable with players who are one-dimensional, unless they are exceptional.
Sehwag has built a career out of being an exceptional hitter. He has always been allowed to bat the way he does irrespective of the match situation or team requirement, with the belief that on his day, he can be an incomparable match-winner. Those days have become rarer and rarer. His fitness has been dodgy, and he has played only 13 ODIs since the 2011 World Cup, with only two innings of note - the double-century against West Indies in Indore and a 96 against Sri Lanka in Hambantota.
It is the kind of call Dhoni has almost never made, apart from the time when he rotated three senior openers - Sehwag, Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar - during the ODI tri-series in Australia earlier this year to give his young middle-order batsmen more chances. As Dhoni said today, without naming anyone, if he does leave a senior batsman out, it will be a very difficult decision for him.
"I think it will be one of the toughest decisions that I have taken so far," Dhoni said. "But we will have to see what fits the combination the best and we will have to wait and watch. It has to be a good decision because that is what really matters."
Dhoni is a pragmatic captain. He likes to do things he is comfortable with, and likes to do them repeatedly. Even if he takes risks, they are calculated and rarely leaps of faith. He is comfortable with four specialist bowlers in the side. That is why he has said he missed Yuvraj Singh's bowling so much while the latter was out of the side undergoing treatment for cancer. It seems he is preparing to step out of his comfort zone by saying he will play five bowlers against Australia, even more so, as the decision involves leaving out a senior batsman.
Sehwag was one of the last to pad up for the nets today. Before that, while Ashok Dinda was bowling to Dhoni, he joked around with the duo. The relationship, and the alleged rift, between Sehwag and Dhoni has been debated in the media in the lead-up to tomorrow's game. By Dhoni's standards - if Sehwag does not take the field tomorrow - it will be a brave and a rare decision. The question is, will he do it?
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo