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April 2, 2008
Going in to a venue at which their spinners have enjoyed success and with the intention of playing five bowlers, India are struggling to determine who those five will be. Ishant Sharma has finger and toe injuries, RP Singh remains a concern despite recovering from a hamstring injury and Anil Kumble is struggling with a groin niggle.
It is likely that India will play Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan as the pace quotient, followed by Kumble, subject to a fitness test on the morning of the second Test, Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla. If Kumble does not make the cut then it's a toss-up between risking a clearly out-of-sorts RP Singh or using four bowlers with Yuvraj Singh slipping in at No. 6. Kumble confirmed that VVS Laxman would move to No. 4 in Sachin Tendulkar's absence but the batting is not a real worry.
Kumble was distinctly grim as he addressed the press after a two-hour session, perhaps a reflection of his predicament going into the second Test. "We just have to wait and we'll take a call tomorrow morning," he said. "There are a couple injury concerns. Whatever combination we have, we have enough potential and quality to do the job. We have worked out some plans to ensure that we put pressure on the South Africans and get the right result. But the injuries are a concern."
Kumble bowled in the nets, from his proper run-up, but it was evident he was not fully fit. If Kumble, who has 35 wickets in six Tests in Ahmedabad, does not play India will lack a truly potent spinner. Harbhajan took eight wickets in Chennai but his bowling, once flighty and bouncy, has slipped into flat, fast offbreaks pitched on middle and leg. The way Younis Khan handled him, when Pakistan toured last year - repeatedly reverse-sweeping, even when on 99 - was perhaps the best example of how Harbhajan has disintegrated.
If Kumble plays it will be the 50th time that he and Harbhajan will play together in a Test. The last time they combined in Ahmedabad they shared 17 wickets to help beat Sri Lanka by 259 runs. In Tests played together here they've accounted for 51 wickets. Their success together goes back farther than that, however, and India need the two to work in tandem.
RP, whose fielding in Chennai was below par, bowled in a limited capacity and is a highly unlikely starter. India's physio, Paul Close, had long chats with both Sreesanth - who took it lightly during a brief spell in hot conditions - and RP and it remains to be seen what hard work has been put in the short gap between Tests.
The venues for India's last three Tests at home have produced utterly paata tracks and as the bandwagon moves west to Ahmedabad, head curator Dhiraj Parsana's take on the pitch take further importance against a most discouraging trend of high-scoring draws in India over the last five years.
Kumble chose not to comment on the Motera track, maintaining that there were "too many questions and too few answers" but given the history of breaking pitches India will certainly play Chawla. Chawla was under-bowled in his only Test, against England in 2006, bowling only 14.1 overs but has some one-day success against South Africa. Under the captaincy of Ajit Wadekar and Mohammad Azharuddin, India frequently played three spinners on tracks made at their behest but not since the mid-1990s have they enjoyed success with three slow bowlers. Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan formed a formidable trio on true dustbowls; Chauhan never featured in a lost Test in 21 appearances.
This, however, is a different situation and there's no ignoring that India have failed to bowl out sides on the fifth day frequently in the last two years. Minus Kumble and with Chawla just one Test old, they could struggle against a side that has improved against spin excellently.
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge