India v South Africa, 1st Test, Nagpur, 1st day February 6, 2010

A perfect selection storm

N Hunter
Minor selection issues converge to become major headache for India

It was a day of two contrasting debuts. For the last five years S Badrinath has been shouting himself hoarse trying to attract the attention of the selectors with a truckload of runs. Finally his call was answered - he got his debut in place of the injured Yuvraj Singh. What raised eyebrows, though, was the inclusion of the second debutant, Wriddhiman Saha, a last-minute decision that put the player and his team under considerable, perhaps unfair, pressure.

It forced the question: Why was the Bengal wicketkeeper, just 24 first-class matches old, out on the field when he really should have been carrying the drinks? The simple answer: he was here in Nagpur and the team management were put in a spot once Rohit Sharma, himself a last-minute inclusion to cover for the injured VVS Laxman, twisted his ankle during the morning warm-ups.

Behind that simple answer lies a questionable selection decision, a gamble that could yet backfire on the selectors should events in this game go against India. The squad for this Test had six batsmen - there no wriggle room in the event of injuries, nor even the more established batting wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik to fall back on.

Instead, the selectors picked four seam bowlers, seemingly one too many given that India have rarely played three quick bowlers in a home Test. One spot could have been freed up for a batting back-up, and the need to include Saha as a specialist batsman would have also been avoided.

Asked after the day's play if he felt the squad lacked an extra batsman, Dhoni gave a mixed response: "This question should have been asked when the squad was announced. No one expected the injury [Rohit] to happen 15 minutes before the start."

Rohit's was a case of being in the right place at the right time. He was leading the Board President's XI in the warm-up game against the South Africans and was asked to stay back at the team hotel as the cloud over Laxman's wrist injury had not yet cleared. Barring a triple-century against a below-par Gujarat attack at home, Rohit had little to show this domestic season. Even in the ODIs his spot has now been grabbed by Virat Kohli, who has been earning plaudits with his performances with the national team.

This was the first instance of both Dravid and Laxman missing a Test since 1996. Both men are in the twilight of their remarkable careers and selectors over the last few years have been working hard on grooming their replacements. Badrinath has proved to be the most bankable scrip on the domestic cricket indices and the first name on the replacement list. But selections are matters of choice, and across history selectors have picked players in the past on pure instincts, willing to take the gamble. Another route has been to pick a player on his current form.

If you use the second parameter as the yardstick, Karthik should have been the ideal choice as your reserve keeper. Despite the lacklustre Bangladesh tour, he has outperformed Saha in the domestic season and if he was pressed in as a specialist bat, his 23-Test experience would have added weight to a new-look middle order. But Dhoni mentioned he was left with no choice. "We went with the best option available option because Laxman was 50-60 % fit," he said.

So India had two debutants in the middle order for the first time since 1996 when Dravid and Sourav Ganguly played at Lord's. In the last decade only Yuvraj Singh managed to make a place in the middle order, playing his maiden Test in 2003 since when it has had a settled look.

Kris Srikkanth's selection panel has, through most of its tenure, stuck with players who were introduced to the national pool by the previous two selection panels. You cannot blame them for riding on the success that the pairing of Dhoni and Gary Kirsten has scripted in the last two years in Test cricket, but they need to work out the pros and cons of every decision they make.

There is no doubt Saha is happy and excited about his debut - though doubtless he would have preferred different circumstances and a different role. Spare a thought, though, for those young aspirants who have been shouldering responsibilities for their respective states piling up big runs - the likes of Manish Pandey, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and other good batsmen who are bound to feel distraught at not being considered despite their domestic success. Their time will probably come but it could have been sooner rather than later.