November 18, 2011

Who's going to Australia then?

India's squad for the tour down under more or less picks itself

As India's selectors sat down to the rather enviable job of watching Rahul Dravid bat at the Wankhede stadium, grammar, grace and grooming all on display, they must scarcely have thought of the job ahead of them. While it would seem that picking a team to tour Australia might require a lot of introspection, analysis and tough decision-making, in reality it is a far easier assignment than a few others going around. Certainly it is easier than pretending to curb inflation or reining in fiery chief ministers.

Normally I'm not a great fan of picking 17 players. Generally the fewer players you have who are unlikely to get a game, the better the climate in the change room. But given fitness levels, it may not be a bad idea to look at the extra player. His only job might be to hide the more aggressive pieces in the newspapers from the players, but it is better the extra player is in Australia than at the consulate back in India, waiting for a visa.

The extra player will have to be a quick bowler, given that Zaheer Khan will be returning from an injury, and that both Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron haven't been around long enough for anyone to get a comforting picture on their fitness. Ishant Sharma has bowled a lot of overs on an ankle that was, till recently, cause for concern. It looks like a fifth bowler of that tribe would be a prudent investment.

The eight batsmen select themselves. With Virender Sehwag fit and Gautam Gambhir's wedding behind him, those two are free to continue with an opening partnership that is working and yet performing to no more than par. It will be the last time Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman will be touring Australia, and those three will have tick marks against their name quickly - not on grounds of sentiment or of cruelty to youngsters but by the weight of runs.

By leaving Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina out of the home series, the selectors have already shown their hand. Virat Kohli must go to Australia, and it seems Rohit Sharma has earned their fancy. You can complain with neither decision. That leaves the reserve opener, a slot that Dravid, particularly, would be keen to see filled. Murali Vijay hasn't knocked on the door hard enough; neither really has Abhinav Mukund, who looked good in patches in England. It would seem that Ajinkya Rahane has the nod at the moment, but that decision might take a third of the time at the meeting.

If Zaheer can run in hard in the two Ranji Trophy matches he has, that will be a significant boost. But run in hard he must, for he has only been in Australia on short-term visas in the past

Harbhajan Singh is not exactly running through sides in the Ranji Trophy, and he has relatively uninspiring numbers in Australia behind him, which means Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin should make it. There is something to be said in favour of Harbhajan, though, for he is a feisty character and gets under Aussie skins, but he is more likely to do that with wickets in his bag. This might not be his tour.

Both Yadav and Aaron have impressed in their own spheres. At the moment, promise rather than achievement is their qualification, but they've done enough to make it, along with Ishant. And if Zaheer can run in hard in the two Ranji Trophy matches he has, that will be a significant boost. But run in hard he must, for he has only been in Australia on short-term visas in the past. He swings the ball, and in recent times Australian batsmen haven't countered the curving ball as well as they do the straight one. Mumbai's game on the 29th will be worth a look.

So who is number five then? In England Praveen Kumar was outstanding but in Australia the sun will beat down, the tracks will be hard, and the seam on the Kookaburra will go faster than a Mumbai winter. Still, apart from swing, he showed a lot of heart in England and so he will probably get the nod ahead of RP Singh and Sreesanth and Vinay Kumar. I hope the selectors are keeping a close eye on Irfan Pathan, though, for he has had two five-wicket hauls and has done a lot of bowling. He could be handy at No. 8, for if Zaheer isn't fit and Ojha plays ahead of Ashwin, Dhoni will be followed by Ishant, Yadav, Aaron and Ojha, which will leave him just enough time for a change of pads.

The selectors seem to like Wriddhiman Saha as the next-best wicketkeeper and so this is the team that will most likely go to Australia: Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Rahane, Dhoni, Saha, Zaheer, Ishant, Aaron, Yadav, Praveen Kumar, Ashwin and Ojha.

It is the best team India can put out at the moment.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here