Twelve hopeful men
The time has come for Sreesanth to shut up and bowl. Enough of interviews, enough of altercations, enough of tattoos, enough of new hairstyles, enough of warnings. Just shut up and bowl. Sorry, but that's how frustrating Sreesanth has been. When his mind is in the right place, he has it in him to be one of the best bowlers in the world. Yet he last represented India in April 2008. Injuries, embarrassing stories in tabloids and city supplements of serious papers, and then when he looked like coming back to form in the Irani Cup, another on-field argument, and the "final warning". If he wants to come back to the Indian team, he needs a season full of consistently good bowling and no more controversies. He will also need to show he can do it without too much of the spotlight, playing for Kerala. A natural talent is dying, and only he can save himself.
Controversy over his not being picked for India (MS Dhoni alleged threatened to resign over it), an ordinary Ranji Trophy and injury in the final, impressive performances in the IPL, an unimpressive showing on his international comeback, and then being dropped again after long persistence. That has been RP's year, and he won't want to wait till the next IPL to redeem himself. He has built himself a reputation of being a fine bowler in helpful conditions but ineffective on subcontinental tracks. But it was in India in 2004-05, with 42 wickets at 18.78, that RP first came into the reckoning. A season of that order won't do him any harm.
If Ojha is bemused watching the ODI series between India and Australia, he has every right to be. Including his debut ODI, in the Asia Cup in 2008, he has played nine ODIs, averaged 28 for his 12 wickets, and his 80 overs have gone at 4.2 each. Yet he finds himself out of the ODI side. Last year he could play just the one Ranji match, but this time he looks set for a prolonged first-class season. His main aim will be to upstage Amit Mishra as the second spinner, and also to not let Piyush Chawla get ahead of him in the pecking order.
India's ODI side does not look big enough for both the Pathan brothers. When they did tried to fit both in, Irfan had to pull his weight as the third medium-pacer - a role he wasn't convincing in. Like Ojha, though, he will have had reasons to be displeased when Abhishek Nayar was chosen ahead of him as the seamer-allrounder. When it rained, it poured for Irfan. A shoulder injury made him miss both the Corporate Trophy and the Challenger Series. The captain of Baroda, he will miss the first match, but he expects to be back in time for the second round, and away from all the spotlight will get a chance to work on his bowling.
A string of failures at No. 7, and his captain's reluctance to use him excessively as a bowler have seen him out of the ODI side. But he is back to doing what must be second on his things-I-love-to-do list: murdering domestic attacks. Yusuf is the kind of batsman who can create a sudden impact and make the selectors take notice. He will also know he will be competing with his brother and team-mate when it comes to a national recall.
A bumper debut season for Tyagi - 41 wickets at 21.63 in 2007-08 - took him from nowhere (he was ignored by the UP Under-22 selectors) to the national reckoning. Then came injury, which made him miss the inaugural IPL, followed by the second-season blues (five wickets in three matches at 56.6 in 2008-09). In the lead-up to his third first-class season Tyagi has forced his way into the ODI squad through strong showings in the IPL and the Challenger Series. But India will soon begin playing Tests against Sri Lanka, and that's when he will need to show, through performance in the Ranji Trophy, that he deserves the faith shown in him.
Chawla was the first spinner in the current pack to play for India, but couldn't hold on to his place. The criticism was that he possessed just a googly and tended to overuse it in the absence of a genuine legbreak. He recently had a good time playing for Sussex, on the county circuit, and it's learnt that he has been working hard on his legbreaks. The likes of Mishra and Ojha have gone ahead of him in the pecking order, and this season offers Chawla the opportunity to force his way back into the reckoning.
His detractors say that Uthappa, who last played for India in July 2008, wasted his opportunities at the top level. Some say that he was moved up and down the batting order without being given a regular position. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. By his own admission, some technical mistakes crept into his game and he has been working hard at the NCA in the recent times. He had a good domestic season last year, but not a great IPL. He has started this season with more purpose, starring in the Corporate Cup and managing a couple of good outings in the Champions League. Uthappa opens for Karnataka but it's still not clear, to outsiders, whether the national selectors view him as an opening candidate or as a middle-order batsman.
No one doubted his talent but he hasn't so far been able to translate it into scores at the highest level. He averages a paltry 24.82 from 41 ODIs and his commitment has come under the scanner too. He has done well in the IPL, showing a fine temperament under pressure, but somehow he has failed to get going while playing for India. His chief competitor for the middle-order spot is Suresh Raina, who has had problems with short balls and has also failed at times to deliver under pressure. If Rohit can make this domestic season count, and if Raina continues to flounder, Rohit can force his way back into the Indian team.
Two years ago Tiwary was the chief fringe player for India before an injury pushed the likes of Raina, Rohit and Virat Kohli ahead in the queue. In 2007, just before the start of the ODI series against Bangladesh, he injured his shoulder in a fielding session and was out of the tour. In 2008 he was rushed in to replace Yuvraj Singh in an ODI series in Australia, but received the perfect yorker from Brett Lee. He hasn't played for India since. He recovered from the setbacks, but hasn't set domestic cricket on fire with his performances. Luckily, for him, Bengal have qualified for the Super League this season, and his performances will be closely monitored. Does he still have it in him?
What more does he need to do to get a call-up? For the last few years, he has been the standout performer in domestic cricket, but it hasn't helped him get into the Indian team. His critics says he looks a batsman who can't dominate good attacks, and somehow, without any proof, that criticism has stuck. India likes its young players to be flashy; Pujara isn't one and he deserves to be given the chance to succeed or fail before he is labelled a good first-class batsman and forgotten. Unfortunately for him, he picked up an injury ahead of the IPL and couldn't force his way into the public imagination. He has just recovered from that setback, and it remains to be seen whether he has the hunger to turn in yet another run-fest this year.
Badrinath is where Pujara appears to be headed. He has been consistent in domestic cricket and it appeared that he would never get due recognition, but things changed last year. He made it into the ODI team but couldn't keep his place. Some say he is not cut out for ODIs and that his arena is Test cricket. However, his critics aren't convinced of even that. They cite his age and say he lacks the X-factor to make it big in international cricket. This season could be his last opportunity to break into the Indian team. There are quite a few youngsters around who have made his life tough. Two things need to happen if he is to get in: he has to have a bonanza season and the youngsters have to fail.
Sriram Veera and Sidharth Monga are staff writers at Cricinfo