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With the series under India's control, one of the few questions confronting them is whether the opening combination needs to be rejigged yet again
March 4, 2013
The Hyderabad Test is going India's way even with Australian passages of resistance. If the match threatens to change course - Australia's best batsman is yet to turn up - there is enough time in the game for India to stem that tide.
The series is under India's control and the "turn and bounce" in the pitch is producing the requisite cocktail. Unlike in Chennai, in this Australian second innings, Bhuvneshwar Kumar opened the bowling, ahead of the more experienced Ishant Sharma. His was a precise, targeted burst of six overs, in which he induced chances from the openers but had both catches put down.
If there is still any question mark left lingering from India's performances in Chennai and Hyderabad, it would be whether the opening combination needs to be rejigged yet again with a call taken on Virender Sehwag's form.
The selectors will meet after the Hyderabad Test to pick the team for Mohali and Delhi and Sehwag will be debated. The selectors are said to have an eye on India's next away Test tour to South Africa coming winter. Performances against Australia are being studied, it is said, with that tour in mind. In theory, a meeting with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander without at least a couple of experienced batsmen would appear fatal. Who are the openers in the running to travel that far then?
The Sehwag riddle arises from his form, or the lack of it. Starting from the tour of Australia, Sehwag has scored one century and two fifties in his last 21 innings. After the century against England in Ahmedabad, his scores read: 25, 30, 9, 23, 49, 0, 19, 2, 6. In the last five years, his best innings outside the sub-continent has been 67 in Melbourne in December 2011. Outside conditions of comfort, he averages 22.73.
M Vijay will definitely get another two Tests following his century and the 370-run partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara that should seal this Test. Should Sehwag be spoken to quietly, the other opening option is left-hander Shikhar Dhawan, who was pulled in following an excellent domestic season. Dhawan is a left-handed replacement for Gambhir, who has gone away and scored 44, 69 and 5 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament for Delhi.
Giving Sehwag the nudge may appear the logical thing to do, but who replaces him? There are two choices: one could be to bring back Wasim Jaffer, who has ended feasting on another mammoth domestic season. Jaffer has played 20 of his 31 Tests overseas: in England, West Indies, South Africa and Australia. India won series in the West Indies and England with him. The choice of Jaffer apparently runs contrary to the unwritten "BCCI's youth policy" whispered to the selectors, a policy which is ruled, it seems, by selective application rather than long-distance vision.
On the side of the youth policy, however, there is another silent, not spoken-of candidate who cannot be ignored any more. Ajinkya Rahane has been waiting in the dressing room for more than 12 months since he got drafted to tour Australia.
Chief selector Sandeep Patil may have declared that Rahane has been picked as a middle-order batsman, but the middle-order berths in the Indian line-up are full. Dhoni has already said he will go in at No.6 to make room for Ravindra Jadeja in the XI. While India's middle order is always jammed, the demand for openers never ends, particularly when travelling overseas: Rahane is, at the very least, ready to be tested. The only time to do so between now and South Africa will be the last two Tests against Australia. To stand up against James Pattinson and Peter Siddle in the first session at Mohali won't be a bad way to check footwork and stomach.
Just like this series against Australia has produced both performances and results that will renew the team's essential faith in itself, the tour of South Africa must act as a laboratory where the imbalances wrought by the tours to England and Australia can be redressed.
One more thing: for all the happiness and back slapping from Chennai and Hyderabad, India had another hiccup they would do well to take note of. India lost its last eight wickets for 116 runs once the Vijay-Pujara partnership ended. The Hyderabad pitch has been blamed for much of the problems and questions it poses to fresh batsmen and the importance of set batsmen to stay stuck in. Pujara said on Monday that he thought there was, "a bit of help for the spinners." The pitch was, "turning a little more and the odd ball is jumping. It's good for spinners and you have to apply yourself to bat well." Kohli and Dhoni did put up 56 for the sixth wicket, but the last six wickets fell for 43.
Now while 9 for 116 is not the most breathtaking collapse by India at home in the 2000s - that is 9 for 52 against South Africa in Ahmedabad - it is the third time in two years they have gone down such route. In November 2011, it was 9 for 109 versus West Indies in Delhi and a year later, 9 for 105 against England in Mumbai. It says more about the batting than the opposition.
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