As many as four players who have never played Test cricket were named in the Indian squad for the Mumbai Test, but you couldn't accuse the selectors of a kneejerk reaction. The Indian team is tattered in spirit and mind, and changes were needed. They are good not just for the team, but also for the players who were dropped. Parthiv Patel, Aakash Chopra and Yuvraj Singh all need a break to sort out their game. Ajit Agarkar bowled well only in patches, and he surely must agree that he hadn't done enough.
The four new players were all from different zones, which may raise familiar questions about how the selectors conduct their business. Be that as it may, it is hard to complain about any of the new selections. They have all excelled in domestic cricket for some time now, and have performed at the India A level as well. They deserve these opportunities, and one hopes that they get a decent run in the side to prove what they are capable of.
Dinesh Karthik had an excellent domestic season last year, scoring hundreds in both the semi-final and the final of the Ranji Trophy, and performed well for India under-19 and India A as well. The selectors, of course, would have looked at his wicketkeeping, rather than his batting, as the core reason for choosing him. We shall soon find out for ourselves how he keeps to the Indian spinners, but he certainly has more experience of Indian pitches than Patel, who has yet to play a Ranji Trophy match, did.
Dheeraj Jadhav, who plays for Maharashtra, used to be a doughty middle-order batsman a couple of years ago, who then transformed himself into an opening batsman who stroked the ball around fluently. He made a century recently in the practice game before this series between India and India A at Bangalore, timing the ball so exquisitely that Sandeep Patil, the India A coach who has seen him in action often, said that he should be the next Indian Test opener.
Jadhav will contend for that place with Gautam Gambhir. Gambhir, who turned 23 when the Chennai Test began, has been prolific in domestic cricket, and his first-class average is an impressive 55.85. A couple of years ago he made successive first-class double-centuries, one of them against the touring Zimbabweans. (The previous three Indians to make 200-plus in a tour game at home were, ahem, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar.) His footwork has been considered suspect, but the sheer volume of runs he has scored should not be disregarded until he gets a chance at the highest level.
Shib Shankar Paul took 50 wickets in eight matches in the last domestic season, and was lethal in an India A match against Zimbabwe A recently, where he took 12 wickets. He may not get to play in the final XI, with Ashish Nehra likely to accompany Zaheer Khan, but India need to develop their second-string, and Paul should be groomed.
Sridharan Sriram, who has been in stirring form of late, was unlucky to miss out. He is a middle-order batsman, and the Indians are not planning any changes in that area. In fact, if Sourav Ganguly is declared fit, the team management will face the knotty question of who he will replace. Mohammad Kaif, after a combative 50 in each of the last two Tests, deserves to retain his place, and it will be hard to drop a player of VVS Laxman's class, despite his poor form of late. Will both Jadhav and Gambhir stay on the bench as a makeshift opener is tried out? It is a tricky problem.
The selectors cannot be faulted in the choices they have made. But one worries about the men who have been dropped now. There is no disputing the talent of Patel and Yuvraj, and they must be nurtured so that their technical flaws are ironed out and their confidence returns. That is how one builds bench strength. Australia have a system in place which does just that, but does India?
When Patel goes back to Gujarat to play the Ranji Trophy, the level of coaching and physical training he will receive will nosedive. Who will help him put his wicketkeeping technique together again? And if it does come together, who will notice? As Deep Dasgupta pointed out recently, wicketkeepers in Indian domestic cricket are noticed only for the runs they make, and Patel's will count for nothing, because his batting ability was not in question anyway.
Consider that all of the wicketkeepers tried and discarded in the last few years have never come back, but disappeared in the deep black hole of domestic cricket. Rumours have been floating around that Dasgupta's wicketkeeping has improved dramatically, that Ajay Ratra has been working hard, but these are forgotten men. Patel must not be forgotten. Our cricket academy must have a program in place where players like these receive guidance, and where their improvement is monitored. Karthik may turn out to be the wicketkeeper that India has been looking for, but his back-ups should be confident men capable of withstanding the rigours of international cricket.
Consider, as an example, how many of this Australian side were comeback men. Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, Simon Katich, Michael Kasprowicz and even Shane Warne were discarded from the Australian side at some time or the other. And then, via the infrastructure available to them at the first-class and academy levels, were nurtured back into the top level. It made them stronger characters, and it made Australia a great side. There is a lesson there for India.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.