June 25, 2010

Where are India's bowlers?

Test cricket is back on the team's radar, but there aren't too many partners for Zaheer Khan

The Asia Cup, a tournament that had to be rather clumsily slotted in, and which has lost the principle it was founded on, is finally over. Sadly this time it was just another four-nation tournament. To be fair, it is on a hiding to nothing, for if two other teams had been accommodated it would have made the tournament longer and produced too many one-sided matches. Maybe the original idea needs to be reviewed in a post Twenty20 scenario.

It now sets the stage for India to play their first Test for five months and for the return of those who defined batting as we knew it in the pre-Twenty20 era. India has always tended to be a batting country, and given the current bowling strength, the batsmen have to play the dominant role more than they usually do. But they cannot do it on their own, just as strikers cannot win a football match by themselves. At some point the bowling will have to show it has more teeth than it is displaying.

In the last seven Test matches India played, the fast bowling was carried by Zaheer Khan, but he had fairly significant support from Ishant Sharma and, for a couple of games, from Sreesanth. Now neither of those two seems to be on the selectors' radar, because if they were, they would have been getting valuable overs under their belt for India A in England rather than having to give sundry statements to the media. With RP Singh, Munaf Patel and Irfan Pathan in various stages of disfavour, India will have to find a partner for Zaheer, and it would seem a drawing of lots would be as accurate a method as any, especially given that the only spark so far has been provided by young Jaidev Unadkat on that A tour.

In fact, the selection for that A tour worried me a bit, because I fear that side is full of people who are unlikely to play for India. The objectives of an A tour are really two-fold: to check out someone like an Unadkat, who you believe has promise, but more crucially to let your fringe players play themselves back into contention. It is like playing a couple of games for a 2nd XI once in a while to get time in the middle and rediscover rhythm. It would have been fantastic for India if an Ishant or an RP Singh or even a Sreesanth had picked up wickets in England and had enough overs under their belt to fly out to Sri Lanka.

Given that India play 11 Test matches between now and the World Cup, I am hoping that the selectors know something we don't.

They certainly have better options when it comes to spinners, with Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, but in South Africa you might well want to play only one of those. Remember, too, that India don't have an allrounder at this level (actually at any level now!) and so must either play five batsmen and five bowlers or make do with four bowlers, which is what I suspect they will do.

The batting, though, retains its settled look, which, given that the average age of the middle order is 37, should start worrying a few people now. The batsmen have powered India and over the last seven games have been in astonishing form, amassing 19 centuries from 52 innings. Only No. 6 is up for grabs now and there are three contenders for it. Apart from Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma (who should have made his Test debut against South Africa had it not been for another of those maddening pre-match football games), Cheteshwar Pujara has made a pretty strong case for himself.

There is much to look forward to and it will be a good test of the romantics who often speak of their yearning for Test cricket. They have 11 games before the biggest 50-over tournament and the glitziest 20-over carnival begin.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer