Pitch prompts Dhoni to rule out three spinners
MS Dhoni has all but ruled out playing three spinners on an Ahmedabad track that is "on the drier side", but not quite the turner India got in Kanpur when they beat South Africa inside three days in 2008. Even though they were not present at the pre-match training session, Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav are fit and sure starters. With Ishant Sharma down with viral fever, Ashok Dinda is being flown in as cover for any last-minute injury to either Zaheer or Yadav.
Dhoni has made no secret of his demand of Indian groundsmen that visiting teams be given a stern spin test, but his faith in two quicks on the eve of the start of the series suggests the pitch might not be a "rank turner". "If we get a wicket like we got in Kanpur against South Africa, maybe we will even go with four [spinners]," Dhoni said. "Also what we need to see is if the wicket is like that, the fast bowlers also get a bit of reverse swing. It is always advisable to have a bowling attack where you have people for different scenarios, and I believe fast bowlers are important."
The square at the Sardar Patel Satdium has been relaid recently, the lower clay content promises breaking up, the pitch looks completely bald, but the groundsman is worried the turn on offer could be slow. "Looks like a good wicket," Dhoni said. "As the game progresses it may slow down, and the spinners might get some assistance. Maybe a bit of reverse swing for the fast bowlers.
"Definitely it looks on the drier side. I feel they have changed the soil from the last time we played here… Definitely I feel it will turn."
That Dhoni is not thinking of a third spinner has a lot to do with the return of Yuvraj Singh, who can - in the contest against England and Kevin Pietersen - even pass off as an allrounder. Even when Dhoni was asked about Pietersen's return, he said they will enjoy the contest between him and the "piechucker".
"He bats at No. 5 or No. 6, and his left-arm spin is very crucial for us," Dhoni said of Yuvraj. "The reason being, more often than not, because we don't have a genuine allrounder, we play four bowlers. So it's important that the part-timers contribute. Especially that phase when the ball becomes old and you are waiting for new ball, you can't use your fast bowlers, you don't want your spinners to be really tired because even with the new ball they come into play after just 10 overs. I feel his contribution will be very important. He is quite intimidating when he bats. If you see his good innings, he can really dominate."
The third spinner in the squad, who is all but likely to miss the Ahmedabad Test, is Harbhajan Singh. Dhoni said his experience, even if he doesn't get to play, will be valuable. "If you look at the top four or five spinners [in India], Bhajji features there," Dhoni said. The good thing is, he is now part of this series, and he can share his experience with youngsters. [Pragyan] Ojha has played with him in quite a few games. With [R] Ashwin he can share a bit more experience. He has a big contribution to make in the coming series. He will work a lot with the team. That should help him in the future."
Dhoni reinstated his faith in the spin combination of Ashwin and Ojha. "They understand each other very well," Dhoni said. "That's something very important. If it's not turning, Ojha is someone who can keep it tight.
"Ashwin will always be a more aggressive bowler, in the sense he has got plenty of variations. He loves to use those variations. I think one of the important roles of Ojha's is to keep it tight so Ashwin can attack from the other end. It's not just that. We have seen in innings where Ojha gets the breakthrough for us, Ashwin does the containing job. Best part is, if they know there is something for them, they come into the game."
Dhoni showed so much faith in Ashwin, he made Ashwin sound like the most versatile bowler of all time when asked to compare him with Saeed Ajmal. After paying due respect to Ajmal, Dhoni said: "Ashwin has also got variations. He can bowl almost each and every delivery that anyone can bowl. He has got the flipper, the googly, bowls legspin, offspin, the carrom ball…"
If Dhoni the captain is to believed, Dhoni the keeper better watch out.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo