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India's selectors didn't have too many riches to pick from, and given the limitations, have chosen a fairly balanced squad
Sharda Ugra and Amol Karhadkar
February 10, 2013
The team picked for the first two Tests against Australia indicates much: the gaps Indian cricket is struggling to fill, what shape the playing XI could take, and the kinds of surfaces the Australians can expect to face in Chennai and Hyderabad. The selectors have fallen back on history and yet tried to keep their eye on what lies ahead. Given the choices available to the selectors, and the powers vested in them, it is a fairly balanced and reasonable selection.
If any player can feel himself hard done by in this selection, it has to be Wasim Jaffer. Jaffer has had a prolific domestic season, and looked to be a shoo-in for a playing XI in which a successful opening partnership has been separated. He has churned out 835 runs at 75.90, including three hundreds and four half-centuries in the Ranji Trophy. He also scored 80 and 101 not out in the Irani Cup this week. He has looked a cut above other domestic openers and is a reasonable slip fielder, which could have spared India a cordon featuring R Ashwin or Cheteshwar Pujara with shin pads on.
ESPNcricinfo has learnt that the selectors felt the same way, but were told by the board that picking Jaffer would be a contradiction of its "youth policy". Jaffer is just a week short of 35. But in a batting line-up where the composure of the experienced is being missed, picking him for two Tests at least would have been a risk worth taking.
The selection of Shikhar Dhawan over Gautam Gambhir, one Delhi left-hand batsman for another, is not the like-for-like replacement it appears to be. It is the selectors' way of censuring Gambhir for his run of low scores in the last two years over five Test series, with no sign of any upward climb back to the position he enjoyed at the start of the 2011 World Cup. Dhawan has been rewarded for his first-class runs this season. His chances of partnering Virender Sehwag in the Chennai Test, however, hinge on M Vijay slipping in the bathroom and twisting his ankle on the morning of the Test.
Vijay has had a poor Ranji season - 138 runs from 8 innings, top score 42 - but has been kept in the mix for selection matches, with scores of 76 for India A against England and now 116 and 35 in the Irani Cup to go with the double-century in the first Irani Cup. The selectors' faith in him must rest in his average of 47.5 in five Tests at home across six years; besides, his only century in Test cricket came in Bangalore against Australia in 2010-11. If he has to step up and book a seat to South Africa, he must do so decisively when facing Australia's quick bowlers.
History has proved a much more powerful ally for Harbhajan Singh. His return to the squad after playing third spinner to R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in Mumbai against England has come not on the back of large bags of wickets in the Ranji Trophy this season, but rather his astonishing record - 81 wickets in 12 Tests at 24.48 - against Australia at home. Harbhajan has been given another go in the hope that his absence from the team will have spurred him into examining his bowling and made him want to return to the strike-bowler, match-winner category. Ashwin and Ojha's struggles against a quality batting line-up like England, and the lack of spin options, have pushed the selectors to throw Harbhajan a line again.
In an informal conversation a few months ago, one of the selectors had previously remarked that the relentless drive for fast and bouncy pitches across the country over the past decade had led to two alarming trends: a sudden drop in the number of junior cricketers wanting to pursue a career in spin bowling, and a rapid decline in young Indian batsmen's skills against quality spin bowling. The consequences are placed at the selectors' tables today.
The presence of Ravindra Jadeja however, following on from his performance in Nagpur against England, gives the team one more option in their playing XI: to field Jadeja as the floating 'allrounder' who can bat at either No. 6 or 7 - against the soundtrack of Ajinkya Rahane's heart breaking - and send down more than a few overs if needed. Up against a raw Australian line-up, it's a gamble that can be worth considering.
While India's fast-bowling cupboard is far from bare, the list of options has been trimmed by injury. The absence of Zaheer Khan - originally dropped for the fourth Test against England - and Umesh Yadav, and the general flakiness of Sreesanth, have meant that Ishant Sharma must take charge (and wickets) again. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has rightly been selected following his success in the ODIs versus Pakistan and England.
The Sandeep Patil committee has, in every selection, made it a point to send out messages to established cricketers - to Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Suresh Raina in Tests, and Virender Sehwag in ODIs. This time it was Gambhir's turn. What they will be looking for from these sorts of decisions, however, is some payback and substantial gains on the field against Australia.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo; Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Sharda Ugra
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