Baroda's Irfan Pathan is so far the highest wicket-taker in this Ranji Trophy season with 18 wickets. (Getty Images)
New Delhi: Zaheer Khan an iffy starter, Praveen Kumar out, Munaf Patel nowhere in sight and Ishant Sharma yet to hit the straps in his comeback. Reading that, the hard task of beating Australia in Australia seems even harder.
The 'blunt chest' of Praveen Kumar turned into a fractured rib, which also dampened India's aspirations of winning a Test series in Australia. What that also means is that their suitcase carrying fast bowlers to Australia won't have any swing in it.
Ishant, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav and Zaheer are all seam bowlers, relying on bounce and movement off the track, unlike Praveen who beats the batsmen with his swing. It was this weapon in India's arsenal on the 2007-08 tour that helped them win the C&B tri-series.
MS Dhoni's plans of using that ploy in the Test series this time have failed to take off, with Praveen – like before the World Cup 2011 – injuring himself before boarding the flight to Australia. Knowing Dhoni, and if he is serious about his plans to swing out Australia, he won’t step back from throwing his weight around and get his way by getting a swinger – and not a seamer – to replace Praveen. But the question is who will it be?
With Ashish Nehra not seen as a Test candidate and Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun fitting into the seamer's category, the light on the BCCI radar blinks at three names if we take only swing into consideration: S Sreesanth, RP Singh and Irfan Pathan.
The Keralite hasn't made any friends of late despite swearing "I won't do this again" to himself in schizophrenic whispers. Dhoni too hasn't advocated his case after his spiteful behaviour failed to cease, eventually ensuring his ouster. In England, too, Sreesanth didn't make heads turn, apart from when he clowned around. That Praveen stood out in swing-conducive conditions makes Sreesanth's performance even questionable and thereby chances of him replacing Praveen in Australia bleak.
It's difficult to see the selectors turning to RP again after he happily answered their surprise summon in England. He too had little to show during his out-of-the-blue recall to India's Test and ODI squad, and his stock delivery – which curves in late against the left-handers – hardly looked menacing. He too has been something of a spent force lately, with just eight wickets to his name in the last 10 domestic matches this season. Sufficed to say that RP's name can be crossed out.
Does that mean the pointer stops at the name that ignites discussions – for and against – in the cricket corridors and across the dinner tables? There has been a notion that perhaps Irfan, 27, is losing precious time and perhaps with it chances of getting back into the Indian team purely as a bowler. But in the ongoing Ranji Trophy season, Irfan has been grabbing space in the dailies purely because of his bowling – which is what India wants.
He is currently the highest wicket-taker this season with 19 at an average of 12.88, including three five-wicket hauls. He scripted Baroda's win over Madhya Pradesh, grabbing eight wickets in the match, and followed it up with another five-for which saved Baroda from defeat to Haryana. Currently playing against Delhi at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Irfan took his third five-wicket haul of the season on Wednesday.
As of now, India have only two bowlers - Zaheer and Ishant – who have faced the pressures of playing international cricket in Australia. And with question marks hanging over Zaheer, in reality it is only Ishant, at least for the Boxing Day Test.
Aaron, Umesh and Ishant are bowlers who rely on pace and bounce, but good old swing can still fox the best – nothing denying that. But is Irfan the best bet or have the selectors already decided in favour of Mithun, who has replaced Praveen for the West Indies ODIs? The answer will come soon.