Gambhir axed; selectors send strong message

His fine performance in recent one-dayers and T20s has earned Bhuvneshwar Kumar a Test call-up.-PTI

The left-hander has been far from his best in the last two years. In fact, he has averaged just 28.10 in 16 Tests during this period with only five half-centuries and no hundreds. S. Dinakar takes a look at the Indian team for the first two Tests against Australia.

Gautam Gambhir’s exclusion from the Indian team for the first two Tests against Australia does send a strong message. Non-performance would not be tolerated and star cricketers cannot be expected to be picked on reputations.

The panel led by Sandeep Patil means business. Senior paceman Zaheer Khan and left-handed all-rounder Yuvraj Singh found their names missing for the Nagpur Test; the fourth of the recently concluded India-England series. Truth to tell, Zaheer had been struggling with his fitness, and consistency continued to elude Yuvraj Singh after his return to Test cricket.

Then, Virender Sehwag was omitted from the ODI squad. Sehwag’s displays had been lacklustre and the selectors needed to send out a message. The punishing batsman required to clean up his act.

This time the axe has fallen on Gambhir. The left-hander has been far from his best in the last two years. In fact, he has averaged just 28.10 in 16 Tests during this period with only five half-centuries and no hundreds.

The southpaw, who has innings building skills, has been found wanting outside the off-stump. He has also been opened up by well-directed short-pitched deliveries. Actually, the time away from international cricket might allow Gambhir to introspect and work on his game. This is not always possible when cricketers play almost non-stop international cricket that leaves them with little time or space to iron out the chinks.

Shikhar Dhawan, another left-handed batsman from Delhi, comes in for Gambhir. Dhawan has been rewarded for his strong showing in domestic cricket. It has to be seen whether he has overcome the tendency to play away from the body against pacemen.

But then, Murali Vijay is likely to partner Sehwag in the first Test, beginning in Chennai on February 22. Vijay, already in the Test squad against England, enhanced his case with a first innings hundred in the recent Irani Cup final in Mumbai.

Vijay comprehends the Australians well, having notched up a match-winning century in the Bangalore Test of the 2010-11 series. Ironically, he played that game because Gambhir was not available for selection.

When Gambhir returned — against New Zealand in the Hyderabad Test that year — Vijay lost his place despite having made a century in his last Test. This time around, Vijay has the opportunity to seal the spot. His Test performances at home — Vijay has an average of 47.5 in five home matches — works in his favour.

Wasim Jaffer, despite a mountain of runs in the Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup, has not been considered. He is an elegant, strokeful opener, particularly at home. However, Jaffer’s age (35) appears to have gone against him.

Senior off-spinner Harbhajan Singh is back in the squad and his presence will add spice to the Test series. He has a past against the Aussies, both with his bowling and on-field aggression. Harbhajan might not be the bowler he was when he destroyed the Aussie line-up with his turn and bounce in that immortal 2001 series at home. That was a series of heroes and dramatic turnarounds.

The off-spinner’s record against the Australians at home — 81 scalps in 12 Tests at 24.48 — is awesome though and could have persuaded the selectors to call Harbhajan back. To his credit, the 32-year-old Harbhajan gave indications of finding some form with his bowling in the Irani Cup.

With the selection of Harbhajan, India could explore the possibility of fielding three spinners — Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha being the other two — in the XI. There is also the possibility of Ravindra Jadeja, a left-arm spinning all-rounder, coming in at No. 6 or 7, contributing as the third spinner. This would enable India to pick a more balanced side with two pacemen in the XI.

The wise men have, rightly, rewarded swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar with a Test call-up. The young paceman’s bowling is underlined by control and he has this precious ability to move the ball both ways.

Suresh Raina does not find favour — Ajinkya Rahane has been retained as a middle-order option — and the left-hander’s vulnerability against short-pitched stuff from the quicks might have undone his chances. Raina, with his range of strokes, can disrupt the rhythm of an attack in home conditions but needs to convince the selectors that he is an improved player of the bouncing ball.

Middle-order batting has been a problem area for India and consistency eluded even someone such as Virat Kohli, rated high by many for his promise and temperament. Despite a century in the final Test in Nagpur against England (he made 103 in that one innings) Kohli totalled only 188 during the entire four-Test series. Failures greatly outnumbered the lone successful innings.

Given the pool to choose from, the squad for the first Test appears a well-balanced one. To their credit, Patil & Co. have not shied away from the tough decisions.