December 12, 2007

Selectors punt on Sehwag

Any which way you look at it, the inclusion of Virender Sehwag for the tour of Australia is an interesting one



Virender Sehwag is a surprise inclusion for the Test team to Australia © AFP

Any which way you look at it, the inclusion of Virender Sehwag for the tour of Australia is an interesting one. The selectors pulled one surprise asking Munaf Patel to play more domestic cricket before he would be considered for international duty, preferring the largely untested Pankaj Singh instead. But it was the inclusion of Sehwag, not in the long-list of 24, that merits most discussion.

It was only three days ago that Ian Chappell wrote, in a column on Cricinfo asking where Viru was, suggesting that India had made their first mistake in their tour of Australia before even reaching antipodean shores. Chappell quoted that gambling adage: "You've got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em," and then wrote, "Now was not the right time to give up on Virender Sehwag."

Well, it seems India haven't. It's as yet unclear how Sehwag made the cut, not being among the reserve openers, but there are few likely scenarios. The first is that the selectors' hand was forced by Gautam Gambhir's shoulder injury and that though they included Aakash Chopra in the 24 probables, he was never seriously in their plans. But having just scored big runs in domestic cricket, they felt obliged to include him in the probables.

The second scenario is that Anil Kumble specifically asked for Sehwag to be included, and the selectors acquiesced, but this would seemingly leave Kumble in quite a spot come the first Test in Melbourne. Will the team play an out-of-form Sehwag as an opener and leave out Yuvraj, who is in the middle of a purple patch? They can't even contemplate dropping any of the other middle-order batsmen. As it is, there's a log-jam for batting spots, and one school of thought was that Rahul Dravid would be persuaded to open, Dinesh Karthik left out, and Yuvraj could play in the middle order.

Leaving Karthik out is one thing, but it makes little sense to take Sehwag all the way to Australia - after all he is not a promising youngster to be taken on tour to gain experience - and not play him. Sehwag is a little over 29, not in very good form, and not the most enthusiastic man on the bench. If Sehwag is a starter as opener, alongside Wasim Jaffer, then there's no place in the XI for Yuvraj Singh.

The name of another makeshift opener, Irfan Pathan, is doing the rounds, and that's more than just a bit odd, given that two Tests ago Pathan was not even in the Indian squad.

 
On the bouncy pitches and hard outfields of Australia a batsman can get serious value for shots, as Sehwag himself showed the last time India toured, almost scoring 200 in a day in Melbourne. If Sehwag can play just one innings like that this time round, the gamble would have paid off. If he can't, it might just be the end of the road for Sehwag.
 

But all this is secondary to Sehwag's selection in the squad. He's clearly not been picked for what he has done in domestic cricket since being dropped, which is scores of 16, 0, 9, 32, 9. He's been picked for that X-factor, that something special he brings, or more accurately, once brought, to international cricket.

It was only Twenty20 that gave Sehwag a foot in the door, and even he acknowledged that playing low-profile domestic matches was not going to get him back in the side. "When I get back I'll try and play with controlled aggression and score big runs," he had told Cricinfo in August. Neither happened in the three one-dayers that he was picked for.

What is worrisome is what Sehwag did in his last few international innings. Against Pakistan he made 25, 43 and 10 in the three outings he got. While it's not always a good idea to look at one-day form and assess a player for Tests, this was a time when Sehwag was batting for his place in the side. And in each of those knocks a Sehwag flaw revealed itself. In the first game, after getting a start, he made room to cut Shahid Afridi, a loose shot at best; in the second he was run out where a dive would have saved him; the third was a flash outside off to the left-arm angle of Sohail Tanvir. Just where was that hunger to perform and regain a place in the side?

Imran Khan, the former Pakistan captain, made the point recently, that conditions in Australia, unlike England where the ball swings quite a bit, could suit Sehwag's minimal footwork style of play. What the selectors, and presumably the team think-tank, are hoping for, is the Sehwag of old. On the bouncy pitches and hard outfields of Australia a batsman can get serious value for shots, as Sehwag himself showed the last time India toured, almost scoring 200 in a day in Melbourne. If Sehwag can play just one innings like that this time round, the gamble would have paid off. If he can't, it might just be the end of the road for Sehwag.

Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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