Question mark over Dhoni's availability

A day before the national selectors meet to pick India's Test squad for the tour of Sri Lanka, much of the speculation surrounds the participation of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Unconfirmed reports suggest Dhoni may skip the series and, while his own public statements have not cleared the air either way, the Indian board says it is unaware of any such decision.

"He [Dhoni] hasn't informed us about sitting out of the Test series. If he wants to sit out, he is free to do so," Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, said.

Midway through the recent Asia Cup in Pakistan recently, Dhoni spoke about fatigue as a result of back-to-back-matches. On Monday, he welcomed Shah's statement: "The board has done a good thing by saying that if someone needs rest, he can opt out."

This is not the first time Dhoni has considered opting out of a tour. In private, he had complained about exhaustion after India's triumph in the CB Series in Australia earlier this year. Despite recovering from a finger injury, he kept the suspense hanging over his availability before the Tests against South Africa, before going on to play the entire series. Since the rigorous IPL campaign with the Chennai Super Kings, Dhoni has played non-stop, leading the side during the Kitply Cup as well as the Asia Cup.

India's coach Gary Kirsten, writing on his website, expressed concern about packed schedules and how important it was for key players like Dhoni to take a break. If Dhoni does request a break, Dinesh Karthik, who was last part of the Indian squad for the Australian tour, is strongly favoured to be the replacement ahead of Parthiv Patel.

The BCCI is yet to decide on the actual strength of the squad due to fitness concerns from the fast bowlers. "We will only decide tomorrow," Shah said when asked if it will be a 15- or a 16-member squad.

What is certain, though, is the return of experience to the squad in the form of Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan. Kumble had to sit out of the last Test India played, against South Africa in Kanpur, while Tendulkar, who had opted out mid-way through the same series due to a groin injury, will submit a fitness certificate tomorrow. Zaheer has not played since his heel injury resurfaced after the first Test against Australia last year.
A big loss is the unavailability of Sreesanth, who has been advised a few more weeks' rest. That, and the below-par performances of RP Singh and Irfan Pathan, is the chief reason behind the selectors being hard-pressed to include Zaheer. Pathan is likely to get the axe due to his fitness. He failed to report his side strain to the selectors ahead of the Asia Cup, and missed the initial games and his bowling form since his return has been ordinary.

Among the slow bowlers, Harbhajan Singh is expected to return to the squad as the second spinner, having served the five-match ban imposed on him for slapping Sreesanth during an IPL game. If the selectors opt for a third spinner, the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, who made his ODI debut in the Asia Cup, is the frontrunner. "He qualified for the national team based on the long spells he's bowled on the domestic circuit and he brings variety," a national selector said about Ojha.

At the top of the order, Gautam Gambhir's solid performances in the one-dayers and the IPL might force the selectors to consider him ahead of Wasim Jaffer, who has looked scratchy in the last couple of series (in Australia, he made 49 runs in three Tests, while he only managed 126 runs in as many matches against South Africa).

In addition to the squad for the Sri Lanka Tests, the selectors will also pick a pool of 30 probables for the Champions Trophy in September in Pakistan.