South Africa in India 2007-08 March 16, 2008

Fitness problems could pave way for changes

Fitness worries make Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh doubtful starters for the Test series against South Africa © AFP

A few fitness reports could be the difference between a "largely unchanged side" and a "slightly different one" when the selectors meet in Bangalore on Monday to pick India's squad for the first two Tests against South Africa.

India's heartening performance in the recent Test series in Australia would normally have resulted in a status quo, but the long tour took its toll on several players, some of whom could miss out on the three-Test series against South Africa, starting in Chennai on March 26.

According to a report submitted by outgoing team physio John Gloster at the end of the Australia tour, Sachin Tendulkar needed a minimum of two weeks' rest. However, Tendulkar quashed the notion of missing the series by declaring he was fit. Rahul Dravid has also recovered from the finger injury he sustained in the Adelaide Test while VVS Laxman, who recently suffered a cut in the webbing between his fingers, is also expected to be available for selection.

It means the core of the batting is expected to be the same [Virender Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Sourav Ganguly] but the selectors will still have some key issues to address. The five-member national selection committee, led by Dilip Vengsarkar, will consult Anil Kumble, the Test captain, and Gary Kirsten, the newly appointed coach, during the meeting.

Pace puzzle
Ishant Sharma, who made a fine impression in Australia, is a doubtful starter after being advised complete rest for three weeks by Gloster. He has a problem in the big toe of his landing foot as well as an inflammation in the right forefinger. He was examined indoors during a fitness test at the National Cricket Academy, the results of which will be sent to the board, who in turn will intimate the selectors.

Zaheer Khan has already been ruled out, which means RP Singh - recently back from a hamstring injury - will be expected to lead the attack, with Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan supporting him. Pathan, not a regular in Tests, would be expected to make the cut after his impressive all-round efforts during India's win in Perth. Munaf Patel remains an option in case India are looking for a fourth seamer. However, with the series expected to be played on tracks favouring spin, he's more likely to be a back-up alternative.

Batting back-up
Wasim Jaffer is likely to retain his spot in the squad, despite a poor series in Australia where he was dropped for the final Test, but the selectors will have to take a call on a third opener. There is a view that there is no need for a third opener for a home series - with the selectors in a position to call up reinforcements at any point - but there is a thinking that another opener could also act as a back-up in case of a middle-order requirement.

Dinesh Karthik, till recently a first-choice opener, remains a contender - his wicketkeeping skills bolster his chances - but Gautam Gambhir's recent one-day heroics put him in the fray too. Both can bat in the middle order if needed and it will be interesting to see which of them, if any, make the cut.

The Yuvraj question
The selectors are also expected to dwell on the issue of Yuvraj Singh. The Gloster report advised him an ideal period of three weeks' rest, which may automatically rule him out of the first two Tests. There was a suggestion that he could undergo a fitness test at the NCA on Monday but it's still not certain that he will be there.

There is also a growing concern about Yuvraj's attitude and Vengsarkar recently came down hard on him. "I am disappointed as I always had expectations from him," he told a weekly magazine. "Yuvraj needs to be more consistent. He is a great talent but he has to perform to his potential."

His exclusion - because of either fitness or form - will open up a slot for a middle-order batsman. A third opener, if picked, could double up for this role but there is also a chance of a specialist middle-order batsman being chosen. Rohit Sharma has done his chances no harm with some composed knocks in the recent CB Series and a few other domestic performers could be in the reckoning as well.

Spin variables
Harbhajan Singh may miss out because of a hamstring injury, for which he was advised two weeks' rest. Murali Kartik is expected to get a call-up, especially if the selectors decide to trust in spin. The pitches for the series are likely to favour spinners, given South Africa's vulnerability against them. Harbhajan's absence might open up another slot - one that might be filled up by legspinner Piyush Chawla or even Amit Mishra, another loopy legspinner who's second on the domestic wicket charts this season, with 46 wickets in 11 first-class games.

Probable 14-man squad: Wasim Jaffer, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), Irfan Pathan, Anil Kumble (capt), Sreesanth, RP Singh, Murali Kartik, Yuvraj Singh/Gautam Gambhir/Dinesh Karthik/Rohit Sharma, Harbhajan Singh/Piyush Chawla/Amit Mishra.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo