Will Anil Kumble be fit, and will India play two spinners? © AFP
The biggest question India grappled with a day before the start of the second Test was the fitness of Anil Kumble, their captain and an integral part of a two-spin, two-pace attack. The answer, about 21 hours before the captains walked out for the toss, was the same as it was in Kanpur earlier this year. He was troubled by a bad shoulder then, as he is now. "If I can bowl, I will play...So I will assess how I feel in the morning," Kumble had said a day before the Kanpur Test. "It's 24 hours before the match, so we'll just wait and see how it responds," he said on Thursday. He didn't play in Kanpur, and we'll know only at the toss tomorrow if he does here.
"It's a lot better than what it was yesterday," he said. Yesterday he hadn't even bowled at the nets. Today he said he did, in the privacy of the indoor nets.
India go into an important Test match with more questions than answers, in contrast to their opponets. Stuart Clark, one of Australia's main bowlers, was injured during the Bangalore Test. He didn't bowl yesterday, took a fitness test today, during which he bowled around 30 deliveries, and didn't look fit enough to play a Test. As a result the man who will take his place, Peter Siddle, knows a day in advance, and has time to settle his nerves before his Test debut.
The replacement for Kumble, if needed, both as player and captain, will get to know about an hour before the match. It's an academic thought but India don't have a designated vice-captain either. Going by the Kanpur precedent, Mahendra Singh Dhoni should lead the side if Kumble is not fit to play. Australia have always gone after the opposition captain; here, the captain has left himself open to being a target.
The weather, and its effects on the pitch, could also have a bearing on the combination. The rains have meant the pitch has stayed under the covers for too long, and hasn't had the desired amount of sunlight. As a result, it is expected to retain some of the moisture underneath the top surface, which looks pretty dry. The curator expects the pitch to be sluggish until, as he hopes, the sun beats down on it consistently.
Again, there are two ways of looking at the sluggish pitch. The spinners might not get the kind of bounce they enjoy in Mohali - as Kumble has done here, with two Man-of-the-Match performances. The pace bowlers might not get the kind of carry. In such a scenario, Munaf Patel sounds a better option than Amit Mishra, going by recent form and experience. This is also the venue where Munaf made his promising debut two years ago. He has gone through a lot since then, and is back with the same promise, perhaps more.
Kumble's fitness and the ideal combination in his absence has left a lot of doubt. But there is a larger question India need to come face to face with, sooner or later and regardless of Kumble's fitness. Are they ready to - and it's not as bold a move as it sounds - play three fast bowlers in home Tests? Especially when there are three pace bowlers close to pretty much the best they have been?
Are India looking more at the past - in Kumble's great record, in the old two-spinner theory - than looking to play the four best bowlers available?
And if they choose to go with five bowlers, it will involve another emotionally detached decision, the kind India are not known for. Playing five batsmen would mean dropping either Sourav Ganguly or VVS Laxman. One of them is in his last series, the other is three Tests short of 100. Even though the batsmen did enough in Bangalore to save the Test and their places in the side, the bowling attack didn't look potent enough to force the issue. This pitch here is expected to be better for batting.
The last time India went with three fast bowlers, when not playing five bowlers, in a home Test, was against Pakistan in 2004-05 - incidentally, at the same venue. L Balaji, Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan had done well then to bowl Pakistan out on the first day but in the second innings, when the pitch became easier to bat on, India couldn't bowl Pakistan out. Pakistan started the fifth day 53 runs ahead with four wickets in hand. Kumble managed two wickets on the fifth day, but the match was saved by Abdul Razzaq and Kamran Akmal.
The pitches in India have, however, changed since. It's hard to find a track - Kanpur was an underprepared exception - that of late has been a typical Indian minefield. Are India looking more at the past - at Kumble's great record, at the old two-spinner theory - than looking to play the four best bowlers available?