Veterans' inclusions mock India's spin reserves
India's spin attack for the Sri Lanka tour includes a 35-year-old who played his first Test in two years last month, and a 32-year-old who if selected in the final XI, will be playing his first in four years. The 35-year-old, Harbhajan Singh, took six wickets at 42.5 in the season leading into his comeback. The 32-year-old, Amit Mishra, took 10 at 20.4. It is fair to say their comebacks have come as much due to their IPL performances and the failure of other younger spinners as they have been earned through their own first-class performances.
It is great that two spinners at this age have shown enough fitness to be allowed a comeback at this age - and legspinners are known to mature late anyway - but experts are not happy with what this says about India's spin reserves. Starting with the Sri Lanka tour, India are expected to play at least 19 Tests in spin-friendly conditions over the next two years. Right now is when India should be bursting with spin talent, but they have been forced to go back to two men discarded long ago.
Analysing the squad for ESPNcricinfo, Ajit Agarkar said: "I'm surprised because like Harbhajan, they have gone back to another spinner who has been around for a while. The worrying aspect is that there doesn't seem to be a new spinner on the horizon, which is more worrying than taking Amit Mishra.
"This is not a dig at Amit Mishra. He has served his time in domestic cricket, fell out of favour in Tests because he was a little slow in the air and off the pitch, but to not have any spinner is a more worrying aspect than picking Amit Mishra."
There are a few other spinners, of course, but they are all out of favour for different reasons. Ravindra Jadeja was stellar in the home-series whitewash of Australia in 2013-14, took a five-for in Durban, but does not seem to be the same bowler since his shoulder injury. Pragyan Ojha, who took 10 wickets in the last match he played, was discussed in the meeting, but he is just coming back from problems surrounding his suspect action, so you can not be sure how confident he feels and how his new action does under the scrutiny of Test cricket.
Karn Sharma, who was given a Test debut in Australia, was persisted with despite a lacklustre premiere and even more lukewarm first-class statistics, but he is out injured now. That leaves another spinner who has been part of the national set-up, Axar Patel, but he came in for a stinging appraisal by former India captain Sunil Gavaskar.
"No, Axar Patel is not an alternative spinner India should be looking for," Gavaskar told NDTV. "He just rolls the ball, he does not have the flight and his deliveries are very much predictable. He does not turn the ball unless the pitch is favourable. He is slightly slower than medium pace. Yes, Ashwin, Harbhajan, Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma are the spinners India can look for but certainly not Axar Patel."
Sandeep Patil, the chairman of the selectors, did not sound as concerned, at least about the ages of the spinners his panel has selected. He said he was happy with the way Harbhajan had come back, and that the selectors represented each and every cricketer in India no matter their age. Patil added that no other spinner in the country could feel really hard done by this selection.
Harbhajan and Mishra need not look beyond their next opponent for reassurance that it is not too late for them. Post Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement, a 31-year-old Rangana Herath answered Sri Lanka's SOS when playing club cricket in England and despite a recent drop at the age of 37 he might still be the best Test spinner in Sri Lanka. That, though, does not say much to recommend the system.
India find themselves in a similar situation with the spin cupboard bare. It is often said that the pitches in domestic cricket - greener surfaces over the last few years - have led to this crisis, but it might be time to analyse the impact of another phenomenon: Twenty20 cricket.
The IPL is now eight years old. When it first came, there were players growing up thinking Test was cricket was the thing. It is possible by now we have started getting players who have an alternative. Is it just coincidence that the younger options available are of the flatter, quicker - Karn and Axar - variety with not much in first-class cricket to recommend them? A variety that "just rolls the ball", as Gavaskar has pointed out.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo