Twelve hopeful men
Ashish Nehra's skills have never been questioned, not since Durban, where he bossed England with a supreme exhibition of controlled swing. That was the limitless Nehra of 24 years, with the world at the mercy of his seam position. Five years passed, years when injuries blighted him, but he managed to re-emerge. Nehra redux knew his limitations and gave up Tests, wary of not biting off more than he could chew. Two years later, he has become a certainty in a transient ODI bowling line-up, and now believes he has regained the strength and stamina for the longest format. This season Nehra will try to prove that he is ready, and if he succeeds, India could have a fast-bowling attack capable of retaining that Test No. 1 ranking for a while.
Ashwin has made all the right moves since MS Dhoni empowered him with the new ball in IPL 2010. He is now a strong contender for a limited-overs spot but a Test call-up remains a distant dream. Only a compelling domestic season or two can elevate Ashwin on par with Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra. He has started brightly, bagging seven wickets to go with a quick 73 in October's Duleep Trophy. Crucially, he earned his wickets with classical flight and loop, without overly resorting to the carrom ball and his other Twenty20 variations. Ashwin's stock will rise if he can sustain that effort through the season, but another average year could bring with it the tag of limited-overs specialist.
Ajinkya Rahane scored 1000 runs twice in two seasons and followed up with 809 in his third. Another bounty season and the India selectors will not have any excuses for ignoring him. Three vacancies loom in the India batting line-up, and while M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara have emerged as serious contenders for two spots, the third is up for grabs. So far, Rahane has grabbed every opportunity available to him, be it the A-tour to England, the Emerging Players tournament, the Irani Trophy, or the tour game against the visiting Australians. There is intense competition for that middle-order berth - chiefly from S Badrinath and Yuvraj Singh - but age and an immense appetite for runs put Rahane in pole position.
Going by stats, Ravindra Jadeja's inclusion in the ODI side should not elicit protest. He averages 31.47 with the bat - eight runs clear of either Pathan brother - and maintains an economy-rate of 4.84 on the flattest of tracks. Yet, he is considered a short-term solution, a begrudged patch-up job until a real allrounder arrives. Jadeja's IPL 2010 ban cost him an opportunity to silence his critics, but the selectors have kept their faith in him. Now, to make that blue India cap his own, Jadeja has to shine in the Saurashtra whites. These are fields he has conquered before: 776 runs and 45 wickets in the 2008-09 season raised him into the spotlight. What he does this year could decide how long he remains there and whether he gains acceptance.
One prolific season is all it takes for genuine fast-bowling talent to get noticed in India - Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun are examples. Jaidev Unadkat should aspire to follow in their footsteps as he prepares for his first domestic summer. He has started in impressive style: seven wickets at 15.42 and an economy-rate of 3.90 at January's Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, 13 wickets on first-class debut for India A at Grace Road, a headlining show in the Emerging Players Tournament in Australia, and praise from Wasim Akram. That is a delightful list of entrees from multiple cuisines, but only a sumptuous Indian main course will convince the selectors. What does Unadkat have on the menu?
If Unadkat wants a role model, he can do worse than pick Umesh Yadav, a seamer who earned his chances through honest performances for Vidharba. A Delhi Daredevils contract followed and he made heads turn with pace and bounce during IPL 2010, earning him a spot in the India sides for the World Twenty20 and the Zimbabwe tour. The selectors have seen his potential, but will now want him to prove his endurance. Can he sustain the 140-plus speeds through an entire day without breaking down? Can he torment left-handers with his natural delivery that angles away from wide of the crease? Can he continue to get disconcerting lift from dead pitches?
He hasn't played for India in the past one and a half years, but fans still send in plenty of mails to ESPNCricinfo during every India match asking why Irfan Pathan isn't in the team. Part of the reason is that India are still struggling to find a genuine allrounder, and many believe Irfan remains the best person for that slot. He has been overlooked for tours where plenty of fringe players were picked, despite making 397 runs at 49.62 and taking 22 wickets at 18.54 last season. India coach Gary Kirtsen feels he is "a little bit light on his bowling side", a perception Irfan has to change to revive his international career.
Long acknowledged as a hugely-talented player, Rohit is yet to deliver. Three years since his one-day debut, he averages 28 and is yet to cement his place in the side. Questions have been asked about his mental discipline and his attitude to fitness. He hasn't been at his best lately, struggling in the tri-series in Sri Lanka, failing on a flat track in the Irani Cup and not making any major contribution during the Challenger series. In the race for a Test middle-order slot, he has fallen behind Suresh Raina and Cheteshwar Pujara. Shedding the excess pounds, and stabilising a shaky Mumbai middle-order will send the right signals to the national selectors.
His troubles during his tenth year on the international circuit are well-documented. A permanent member of the one-day side for much of the previous decade, he was dropped for the Asia Cup earlier this year. He also lost the Test spot vacated by Sourav Ganguly in 2008 to Raina. Three fractures of his hand, a cartilage tear in the wrist, neck strains and dengue fever have made it a year to forget, but Yuvraj started the domestic season strongly - with an unbeaten double-century in the Irani Cup. Besides helping showcase his batting form, the unglamorous Ranji Trophy - a tournament he hasn't regularly played in since 2004-05 - will also be a test of his fitness and attitude.
At 16, he famously dismissed Sachin Tendulkar in the Challenger Trophy. At 17, he became India's second youngest Test debutant. At 18, he was deceiving Kevin Pietersen with his googlies during the tour of England. Now 21, Chawla has been out of the national Test and one-day sides for more than two years. Harbhajan Singh has been India's lead spinner in all formats, but there is plenty of competition for the back-up spot: Ojha and Mishra in Tests, and Jadeja and Ashwin in limited-overs. A surprising recall to the Indian team for the World Twenty20 earlier in the year shows Chawla remains in the selectors' sights, and with arguably India's finest domestic pace attack - RP Singh, Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar - supporting him at Uttar Pradesh, a solid season could pitchfork him back into the reckoning.
For a country that has traditionally struggled to find a strong Test opening combination, these are times of riches. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have provided solidity at the top over the past two years and, in his limited opportunities, Vijay has shown he is an able replacement in case either of the Delhi pair is missing. Adding to the options is 20-year-old Tamil Nadu left-hand batsman, Mukund, who averages in the mid-50s after three full seasons. This year, he had a good tour of England with India A, top scored for India in the Emerging Players tournament in Australia, and kicked off the home domestic season with 161 and 63 in the Irani Cup, earning a place in the Test squad against Australia last month.
India have mostly fielded weakened teams in the past few one-day tournaments, but Kohli has done enough to retain a place in the squad, if not the XI, when a full-strength team is picked. A match-winning century against Australia in Visakhapatnam has pushed him ahead of Rohit in the fight for a middle-order place in ODIs, and he showed in the Champions League T20 that he can adapt his game to the Twenty20 format as well. A place in the Test squad remains elusive, though. The absence of Sehwag and Gambhir for much of the Ranji season will make him Delhi's most important batsman. Gambhir's international career took off after a stellar 2007-08 season where he led Delhi to the title; a similarly outstanding tournament could push Kohli's Test case.
Siddarth Ravindran and Nitin Sundar are sub-editors at Cricinfo