December 5, 2007

Alarm bells ringing loud

India would ideally want five bowlers for the four Tests against Australia but a perplexing situation has presented itself: the first four choices are injured

If Dinesh Karthik fails to perform in Bangalore, he could allow Parthiv Patel an opening into the squad to Australia © AFP

Amid all the crises surrounding the BCCI and the chairman of selectors, Indian cricket has stumbled across a mess like few others. Injuries to four frontline pace bowlers has meant the selection committee, while meeting in Bangalore to pick the squad for the final Test against Pakistan, chose a left-arm seamer on the comeback trail, a raw fast bowler just five Tests old, and another greenhorn who has featured in a solitary Test.

India's situation is eerily similar to Pakistan's before the Kolkata match. They will be comforted by the knowledge that an attack comprising three spinners could produce a favourable result, on a surface that's expected to be a featherbed, but will fret over their options for the Australian tour.

India would ideally want five bowlers for the four Tests against Australia but a perplexing situation has presented itself: the first four choices are injured. Irfan Pathan, who would have been ideal as the fourth seamer, will now lead the attack in Bangalore, and Ishant Sharma and VRV Singh - both of whom would have been fifth-pacer options - are battling to share the new ball (assuming Sourav Ganguly doesn't do so with three spinners chosen).

What will be on the back of the pace-bowling trio's mind is that a shellacking at the hands of the Pakistan batsmen could see them missing out on Australia. An impressive spell from one could seal the deal but missing out on the game might well be a blessing in disguise. Ajit Agarkar, currently nursing a shoulder niggle, is in a similar predicament: he will miss Mumbai's next Ranji Trophy match but could benefit from others' poor showing. It's no secret that Pankaj Singh and Ranadeb Bose don't stand much of a chance and it's down to Pathan, Sharma, VRV and Agarkar to fight for two slots. They can either demand a spot by bowling well or gain from the another bowler's profligacy.

There is a view that four fast bowlers would do but that would discount the injury-prone nature of the men chosen. The committee will keep in mind that Munaf Patel has gone through just one full Test series without picking up an injury (in West Indies in 2006) and Pathan, if chosen, is more a support bowler than spearhead.

The other big debate that will continue to rage is surrounding the opening slot. It's clear that the fate of three players now hinges on Dinesh Karthik's bat. If Karthik finds some form in Bangalore (even one fifty could do) he can be assured of a ticket to Melbourne. He has the backing of the team management and offers the side the extra option of being a wicketkeeper. Gautam Gambhir will then be expected to fill in as the reserve opener.

In case Karthik fails, three players could be smiling in various corners of India. He would still have a case to make it - after all he was the highest run-getter on India's tour to England - but another poor game for him would strengthen Parthiv Patel's case considerably. Parthiv's selection, though, one where he is likely to be considered as only a specialist wicketkeeper and not as a reserve opener, could lead to one more berth opening up.

It would mean that the selectors may try to fit in two openers to complement Wasim Jaffer at the top of the order. And it could lead to a situation where both Gambhir and Aakash Chopra - Delhi team-mates who will be playing against Maharashtra in Nagothane - make the grade. It's an unlikely scenario, simply because it would again point to just four fast-bowling options, but stranger things have happened in Indian cricket. Just ask the chairman of selectors about how he spent the previous fortnight.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo