Sehwag, Harbhajan miss the bus

Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh (below) don't enjoy the selectors' confidence.-AP Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh (below) don't enjoy the selectors' confidence.

In 1990, 1996, and 2002, India lost the opening Test of the series in England. In 2002, India managed to level the series, after negotiating a testing opening day of seam, swing and cloud cover, at Headingley. This is precisely why so much hinges onthe Indian openers. They need to prevent the English pacemen from having an early look at the middle order, writes S. Dinakar.

The selection of players for India's tours of Ireland and England has been termed as being bold by some. For some others, the exercise lacks a clear vision.

The squads do not include Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh. The team for the three-Test series in England has two rookie pacemen in Ishant Sharma and Ranadeb Bose. Middle-order batsman Rohit Sharma will journey to Ireland for the ODIs, where India will meet South Africa in three matches and Pakistan in one.

India will be touring England in the second half of the summer. The pitches during this part of the year normally offer more assistance to the spinners because of wear and tear.

This is precisely why young leg-spinner Piyush Chawla could have been included in the Test squad. It can be argued that India already has leg-spinning ace Anil Kumble leading the attack, but Piyush is a very different bowler with his flight, loop, and a stinging wrong 'un. In the past six months, he has been getting his leg-spinners to turn more.

K. PICHUMANI

England, traditionally, has struggled against a leg-spinner cast in the classical mould. Piyush and Kumble, with his faster variety, could have combined effectively.

Once the selectors decided to leave out Harbhajan Singh from the Test squad, Rajesh Powar, another off-spinner, was their choice. To be fair to Powar, he has operated well in the opportunities provided to him, and has indeed, emerged, as an increasingly crafty bowler.

Ironically, Harbhajan — the off-spinner has 238 wickets in 57 Tests at 29.86 — had an innings haul of five for 13 in his last Test, against the West Indies in Jamaica last year. India registered a series-winning victory. Only 26, the off-spinner has age on his side. The selectors have given him time to regain form, rhythm and confidence. He has been economical in the ODIs, but needs to regain the bite in his bowling — the flight, spin and bounce — which would arrive with greater rhythm and self-belief.

Under the circumstances, if India faces a scenario where two spinners need to be picked in the XI, Chawla might have added more teeth to the attack.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been rewarded with the vice-captaincy of the one-day team.-AP

India has increasingly chosen to go with a lone spinner outside the sub-continent, opting for three pacemen in the attack. The think-tank needs to be more flexible here. The decision not to pick a second spinner in the decider at Newlands — the surface turned out to be spinner-friendly — earlier this year might have cost India a rare away series triumph in South Africa.

Of course, the side could field a five-man attack with Mahendra Singh Dhoni being the sixth batsman. India, though, is unlikely to take this risk with its batting line-up in England.

Rahul Dravid and his men will play Tests at Lord's, Trent Bridge and the Oval. The pacemen should call the shots at Lord's. It was at Trent Bridge that Sri Lanka squared the series last season, with off-spinning wizard Muttiah Muralitharan running through England in the last innings.

Muralitharan being destructive, on any surface, is no news. More interesting, from an Indian perspective, is that Sanath Jayasuriya's back-up spin was extremely effective, although his figures in the Test do not reflect this. India's last Test victory in England, at Headingley in 2002, was achieved with Kumble and Harbhajan bowling in tandem.

The final Test will be played at the Oval, one of the harder, drier pitches in England. The surface here has tended to favour batsmen in recent times, but there is always something in the Oval for bowlers of all kinds. Pakistan, which made a 500-plus score in its second innings, was poised to win the final Test at this ground last year, before the Inzamam-ul-Haq-Darrell Hair showdown shook the cricketing world.

Ranadeb Bose (seen with chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar) gets a pace bowling berth.-PTI

Interestingly, England did not perform well at Trent Bridge and the Oval last season. India could scent an opportunity here.

The conditions could also impact a match hugely in England. Cloud covers and rain interruptions might change the course of a match dramatically.

India has just two first class matches, after the ODIs in Ireland, to adapt before the first Test at Lord's. India has to be on guard in the first Test of the series. In 1990, 1996, and 2002, India lost the opening Test of the series in England. In 2002, India managed to level the series, after negotiating a testing opening day of seam, swing and cloud cover, at Headingley. This is precisely why so much hinges on the Indian openers. They need to prevent the English pacemen from having an early look at the middle order.

Predictably, there has been much focus on the picking of the openers for the Test series. The chosen ones are Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik and Gautam Gambhir. Karthik is the second wicketkeeper in the squad, but his primary job will be to open the innings.

Sehwag's claims have been overlooked, with the selectors stressing on form. The punishing right-hander has 4155 runs at 49.46 in Tests. He can alter scripts, dent the opposition psychologically, don the cloak of a match-winner. However, the better attacks of the world have provided him less room around the off-stump in recent times and have aimed at his rib cage.

Sehwag averaged an impressive 51 in the four-Test series in the Caribbean last year, smashing a 190-ball 180 in the second Test at Gros Islet, but floundered against a South African attack of greater precision on seaming tracks.

Jaffer and Karthik hold much promise as an opening combination. Jaffer can play and leave, an important aspect of batsmanship in England. He needs to string together big scores consistently.

There is much solidity about Karthik's ways at the crease. He gets behind the line of the ball and shows the full face of the willow. Once set, he also has the flair to dismantle attacks. The left-handed Gambhir is an exciting shot-maker, but needs to tighten his game on and around the off-stump.

In India's five-man pace attack, the experienced Zaheer Khan and the aggressive S. Sreesanth form a competent left-right combination of contrasting methods. The other three pacemen have less than 10 Tests between them.

They are not without ability. Rudra Pratap Singh is deceptively sharp and can surprise batsmen with extra bounce. Ishant Sharma bowls a consistent off-stump line. Ranadeb Bose, on his first tour with the Indian team, is an old- fashioned swing bowler and an eager beaver. If the conditions are right, Bose could be a threat.

The wise men have rewarded Bose for his performances in the domestic circuit, and picked Ishant on potential. Munaf Patel has been overlooked on fitness grounds. Irfan Pathan is bowling with greater rhythm and control at the nets, but the selectors are not convinced yet.

Ajit Agarkar stages a comeback to the ODI squad, in a move that has sent mixed signals. If India can risk youngsters in a Test series, then going back to Agarkar for the ODIs is a baffling move.

Heavyweights Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, expectedly, return to the India team for the ODIs. The side has the promising Rohit Sharma, a wristy batsman not lacking in elegance, as an additional middle-order bat. S. Badrinath misses out again, but his turn should be around the corner.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been rewarded as much for his attitude as his performances. He is the vice-captain for the series in Ireland.