Ishant Sharma ruled out

The spin attack. Murali Kartik (right), who is back in the Indian team, with skipper Anil Kumble (centre) and Harbhajan Singh.-V.V. KRISHNAN The spin attack. Murali Kartik (right), who is back in the Indian team, with skipper Anil Kumble (centre) and Harbhajan Singh.

India picked three spinners including left-armer Murali Kartik for the first two Test matches against South Africa starting on March 26.

Kartik, 31, who played the last of his eight Tests against South Africa in November 2004, joins skipper Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in a strong spin attack for the host.

India’s new pace sensation Ishant Sharma, who suffered toe and finger injuries on the recent tour of Australia, was omitted from the 14-man squad after failing a fitness test.

The seamer will miss the first Test in Chennai from March 26-30, but will be considered, if fit, for the second Test in Ahmedabad from April 3-7 and the final Test in Kanpur from April 11-15.

Ishant is the only exclusion from the XI that played in India’s last Test, against Australia in Adelaide in January, which ended in a draw and left the host a 2-1 winner.

Opening batsman Wasim Jaffer, middle-order batsman Yuvraj Singh, pace bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth and Kartik have been added to the Adelaide team.

Kumble and the team’s new South African coach, Gary Kirsten, also have three seam bowlers to pick from for the first Test, besides a rich choice of seven frontline batsmen.

Injury worries, however, dominated the announcement of the squad by the Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Niranjan Shah, after a meeting of the five-man selection committee in Bangalore.

Teenage leg-spinner Piyush Chawla, 19, was put on stand-by in case Kartik and Harbhajan fail to recover in time from minor injuries.

Kartik sprained his ankle during a domestic one-day match recently, while Harbhajan will undergo a fitness test on March 21 for a hamstring niggle sustained during the Australian tour.

Pace spearhead Zaheer Khan has already opted out of the series, saying he had not fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered in January.

The team:

Anil Kumble (capt), Wasim Jaffer, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, M. S. Dhoni (wicket-keeper), Irfan Pathan, S. Sreesanth, R. P. Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Murali Kartik.

Coach: Gary Kirsten.