Indian selectors get their timing right
The Indian selectors' decision to drop Virender Sehwag for the last two Tests against Australia cannot be argued with, if cricketing logic and the weight of lack of runs is applied against sentiment and possibility.
It is in many ways a far simpler decision to take at this stage, with India 2-0 up against an Australian side whose transition roadmap in all departments has disintegrated in the middle of a series. No replacement was announced for Sehwag either, an oddity and a signal in itself. Even in home series, the Indians travel in large squads -15 usually - which has long been treated as a fall out of zonal selection but has become a hard habit to break. Today, it was broken. The signal is that Shikhar Dhawan could get his big break after a first-class season with six centuries and five fifties.
The Sehwag omission is an indication the selectors are treading on the straight and narrow directive of the 'youth policy.' It works particularly well in Indian conditions but to gauge whether it can succeed overseas - well, that's what selectors are paid for. Sandeep Patil's panel should be complimented for doing much of the dirty work sidestepped by the Kris Srikkanth panel that preceded it and lived off the 2011 World Cup victory for one year too long.
After the announcement, Sehwag said he was going to find a way back and that he trusts his game. In the last five years, at his best and even his most mercurial, he produced, by a guesstimate, one in three innings of weight and influence on the state of the game. If he is able to find his way back to that state of mind and batsmanship, India will be pleased. If the new openers are beating him on that ratio, then Sehwag can do nothing but work and wait.
Yet, the opportunities for Sehwag to work his way into runs and Test form are on the slender side. The IPL will take all of April and most of May, by which time the Indian summer will set in, in its energy-sapping force. The only avenue is an unusual one: a four-month window in the monsoon, set up for the first time by the BCCI, for A-teams to tour. This July, a proposed India A tour could act as a recce with beanies and thermals, for the full tour that is to follow in the South African summer.
While nothing is final - all India tours appear to materialise at the last hour after mysterious agreements - the A tour is expected to contain three four-day matches and a bag of T20 and 50-over games. What both Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir do in the interim, post-IPL, will give clues about intention and effort.
There was another option for Sehwag, but no one knows if was discussed: for him to slot into the middle order, where he has always said he really belongs. After all, he made his debut at No. 6 as it happens, in South Africa. It is the position where a specialist batsman, if the rest have gone, must bat with those that follow, maybe face the second new ball, farm the strike and push the innings along.
The idea of Sehwag coming in at 44 for 4, batting alongside Dhoni and the bowlers, is a delicious one. But the No. 6 is more of an aggressive anchor and less of a pinch-hitter, more VVS Laxman than Sehwag, and most certainly not a Sehwag without runs. When Sehwag moved to open for India, he had scored a century and two fifties in his first seven Test innings in the middle order and was averaging more than 50. Not now.
The decision to drop Sehwag makes Dhawan the first in line to open the innings with M Vijay in Mohali. Dhoni has by and large been rather fond of left-right hand combinations, particularly in ODI cricket. Dhawan may turn out to be an extension into Test cricket, particularly against the shaken confidence of the Australian bowling attack.
The only thing that could come between Dhawan and a Test place will be the Rahane Reversal. Ever since he was picked for the 2011-12 tour of Australia, Ajinkya Rahane's fledgling Test cricket career was turned into the Otis Redding song. I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay/ Watching the tide roll away/ I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay/ Wastin' time. Maybe Rahane's time sittin' around in the Indian dressing room, like Otis said, watching the ships roll in/ And then I watch 'em roll away again, may actually be over.
The performance of the openers in Mohali and Delhi will give the selectors tips on who stands a better chance of making it to the XI in South Africa. By freeing up two openers' slots, the selectors have given themselves a reasonable number to choose from, once the IPL is done with and the injury roster is up. But if anything, Australia's struggles have proved that no matter how well intentioned a youth policy is, replacing skills is tough. If for the short term, it means going back to an older hand for tours of South Africa and then England in 2014, then so be it. The selectors have shown focus; they must also be ready to be flexible.
If there is a blot on today's events it is that, once again, the reasoning and thought process of the selection panel, the rationale behind Sehwag's omission or where he stood in the succession-planning business, was left behind closed doors. It is one thing for the selection committee chairman to have to dodge bullets at one of our rowdy press conferences. It is another to infect silence onto the BCCI's Twitter handle, website and its Facebook page. It can only be hoped that Sehwag, a batsman who is both rare and influential in Indian cricket in the best possible way, had been spoken to by the selectors.
For a board that is extremely 21st century in the protection of its commercial interests, its communication with those that are responsible for the generation of that commerce - the public, the Indian team's fans - belongs to the age when pigeons carried messages and telephones had not been invented.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo