June 12, 2007

Too many holes

India appear to have picked a couple of passengers for the Tests in England but this is due as much to the bare cupboard in domestic cricket as it is to the fact that captain and selector aren't seeing eye to eye

Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh: have they done enough for a spot in either side? © Cricinfo Ltd.

And so, India will set out to play three Tests against England with an opening combination untested in those conditions and a fast bowling attack desperately short on experience. On top of that, there's no place for either Virender Sehwag or Harbhajan Singh. Inevitably, there will be whispers over how Rahul Dravid, who has openly backed the two in recent selections, has lost out to Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors, who has been gunning for them. But it might just be a case of time running out for the duo. They'll now have to make it back to the team on performance in domestic cricket, not merely on reputation, or someone's backing.

It's fair to say that Sehwag has been showing some signs of being on the mend. But, in his last 15 ODIs, barring one century against a weak Bermuda attack, he has just one half-century, and even that was made against an Africa XI attack that comprised only the two Morkels, Thomas Odoyo and Elton Chigumbura. Sehwag's made three other 40s, but that's simply not good enough for a man who still averages a whisker short of 50 in Test cricket. It might seem odd that Sehwag cannot find a place in the Test side based on his showing in ODIs, but the fact of the matter is that the ODIs were the only place he had a chance to state his case, and there he failed to do so emphatically enough.

Harbhajan's case, if anything, is even more straightforward. While he has been bowling economically in ODIs, mostly flat and wicket to wicket, this is not what you expect from a spinner who should be leading the attack. And this change of approach has not been a recent one. In his last 50 one-dayers, Harbhajan does not even average one wicket per game, averages close to 40, and strikes only once in 56 balls.

When it was most on the line, with India defending a low score against Bangladesh in an almost must-win game in the World Cup, Harbhajan persisted with his restrictive style, instead of showing the courage to toss the ball up and buy wickets when India so desperately needed them.

That is fresh in the minds of some experts, and put him in a weak position even as the committee met. What hurt his cause further was the fact that Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla, the other spinners used, acquitted themselves well in the opportunities they got. There was even the option of Murali Kartik, who picked up early-season wickets for Middlesex before missing a couple of games.

With Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel, there was little to discuss as neither is fully fit at the moment. Munaf is not yet back to bowling, although he should be shortly, and Pathan, though reportedly in decent bowling rhythm, is struggling with his shoulder and cannot throw from the deep. Munaf's history of being taken on tour when not quite fully fit, with the hope that he will pull through, only to breakdown after being carried along, definitely went against him.

What the absence of these four players has meant, though, is that India go into a tour of England with two very serious concerns. Almost no team has succeeded in England without a solid opening pair and a strong pace attack. India have neither. Wasim Jaffer's supporters will point to an average of 35.66, but his scoring pattern, since making a comeback to the team in 2005-06, reads 81, 100, 31, 17, 11, 10, 1, 212, 43, 60, 54, 1, 1, 9, 4, 26, 28, 116, 2, 0, 0, 138*.

Inevitably, it has been the case that Jaffer makes one big score, followed by a series of non-contributions, and just when patience is wearing thin, he produces another big one. Dinesh Karthik has been an industrious and gutsy batsman in the chances he has got, but is not a natural opener. He has opened on just four occasions so far, thrice against Bangladesh, but to be fair to him he did the job assigned to him even in Cape Town, making 63 in a partnership of 153 with Jaffer.

That the selectors have picked Gautam Gambhir as the third opener is down to the fact that he has performed in domestic cricket, but time and again his technique - especially the tendency to plant his foot in line with the ball and play around the front pad, and the looseness outside the off stump - has been exposed by quality attacks in international cricket.

Unless Jaffer or Karthik fail miserably for two Tests in a row, or are unfit, Gambhir might just see more of sights of London and Nottingham than batting out in the middle. Someone like Aakash Chopra, reliable and technically tight, who has had a decent season in domestic cricket and is currently playing club cricket in England, was not chosen. He might just have been a better bet, but then again Indian team selections have not always been made on pure cricketing logic.

The pace attack is spearheaded by a resurgent Zaheer Khan, who, with 47 Test caps has a whopping 34 more games under his belt than the remaining four of the attack put together. Sreesanth (8 Tests) has been very good when he's fired, but there are doubts over his ability to rein in his intensity sufficiently to last a long series.

Ishant Sharma: part of a raw fast-bowling unit picked for the Tests © Cricinfo Ltd.

RP Singh (4) has tasted some success, but that has often had more to do with the generosity of opposition batsmen than his ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries. Ishant Sharma (1) and Ranadeb Bose are out-and-out rookies at the international level, although Bose's case is an interesting one.

It's no secret that Bose has been rewarded for taking 57 wickets in the last Ranji season, but what is less well known is that this reward should have come long ago. When the selectors met to pick the 36 probables for the World Cup, in Rajkot, Bose's name was in the list, before last-minute intervention from a senior official, and the choice of venue for the selection meeting, got Cheteshwara Pujara, who too had a good domestic season, a back-door entry as Bose's name was struck off.

While on the surface of it, Bose's selection appears to be one of horses for courses - if he succeeds anywhere he's likely to succeed in England - his style of bowling, steady and straight, a bit of movement but not much pace, might just prove to be cannon fodder for English batsmen brought up on a diet of just this, leave alone the likes of Kevin Pietersen.

So, when the team management looks to pick its bowling attack - and it's tough to go into a Test in England without three seamers - they're going to find they're a bit light in the third-seamer department. With this in mind it might have been worth thinking again about Ajit Agarkar - even if only for this one series - given that he might have been a more steady option.

At the end of three Tests, you might just find that India have carried a couple of passengers, but this is due as much to the fact that the cupboard in domestic cricket is a bit bare at the moment, as to the fact that captain and selector aren't always seeing things eye to eye.

Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo