Of the four social media questions currently posed on the BCCI's app for iPhone users, the one that carries the most significance is the second one: 'Should India make big changes for their Test squad for the visit of Australia?' At the time of writing, poll results flashed were overwhelmingly in favor of changes, 70% to 30%. Pertinently, ahead of Sunday's selection meeting to pick the Test squad to face the Australians, this mirrors the state of affairs in Indian cricket following a 12-month period which started with 4-0 in Austalia and ended with 2-1 at home against England.
No doubt the results in Australia and against England will weigh on the selectors' minds when they meet inside the corridors of the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai. Following the embarrassment to England last year, changes are merited. There are several players currently punching well below their weight, while younger ones are knocking on the door. At the same time, there are injury worries and a paucity of spinners and fast bowlers. It all makes for a tough time if you're an India selector.
From the squad for the India chose for their last Test in December, the players certain to make way are Parwinder Awana and Piyush Chawla. That's the easy part. Deciding on a winning team combination is much tougher. Time was when the Irani Trophy used to be a showcase for national selection. After a long time, this match has coincided with the naming of a Test squad and it will be interesting to see how many from Rest of India (ROI) get the selectors' nod.
Tamil Nadu's Murali Vijay looks to have put his name back in the reckoning with a solid 116 during the Irani Trophy. Vijay was fortunate to be in the ROI team after a poor Ranji Trophy and the absence of any strong contenders for the opener's slot, but duly grabbed his chance. Vijay was a part of India's previous Tests squad and looks set to be included again, behind the first choice for backup opener - Ajinkya Rahane. One of these two could be opening for India soon, considering Virender Sehwag's last six Test innings read 0, 23, 49, 30, 9 and 25. Sehwag pulled out of the Irani Trophy before the toss and has no serious match practice to show for since he was axed from the ODI squad last month, but should keep his place in the squad as one of four openers.
There is another man who has made a compelling case for re-selection, though it would be a radical call from the selectors. Wasim Jaffer has scored 915 runs in 12 innings this domestic season so far and has looked at ease all throughout on pitches similar to what India will play on against Australia. He reeled off 835 runs in seven matches (average of 76) during the Ranji Trophy, with three centuries including a match-winning 132 in the final against Saurashtra as Mumbai clinched their 40th title. In the ongoing Irani Trophy he scored a stroke-filled 80. One of the selectors, the former India opener Vikram Rathour, watched Jaffer bat up close form the ROI dressing room and would have got a real sense of the form he is in. Jaffer is 35 and it is highly unlikely that the selectors will take a shot on him, but his strong run of form deserves a discussion on Sunday.
Sachin Tendulkar's century against ROI must have eased the selectors' nerves when it comes to the middle order, but there is the need for solidity beyond Tendulkar. The absence of Ravindra Jadeja from the India A and Board President's XI squads to face the touring Australians indicates that he is a certainty for the Test squad, though why he was not picked for ROI is puzzling considering his strong Ranji Trophy and ODI form and the need to bolster that closer to the Test series. Jadeja's one Test appearance resulted in just one innings of 12 but his bowling and fielding should ensure him as the specialist allrounder at No. 7. Should the selectors opt for another middle-order batsman, they could rely on Rahane or add Suresh Raina, whose first-innings 134 against Mumbai may have taken him closer to his goal of playing at least 50 Test matches.
Of graver concern is the health of India's fast bowlers. Zaheer Khan (calf) and Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron (back) remain sidelined with injury and with Ishant Sharma's operated ankle drawing attention on Friday the selectors have no choice but to opt for fresh faces. Sreesanth's failure to do anything of note in the Irani Trophy (1 for 80 going into the final day) has not boosted his chances of a recall, unless the selectors feel his experience counts more than the form of two recent limited-over additions, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shami Ahmed.
Bhuvneshwar has a successful first-class record to show - 149 wickets at 26.02 - and looks set for a good run in international cricket. His shot at Test cricket could be around the corner. Madhya Pradesh's Ishwar Pandey was the leading Ranji Trophy wicket-taker with 48 at 21.06 and collected 2 for 76 in 24 overs during Mumbai's first innings during the Irani Trophy, but whether that was enough to get the selectors' attention remains to be seen. Ashok Dinda could keep his place in the squad.
That leaves the question of the role of the third spinner after R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Harbhajan Singh has done little to merit a recall following 13 wickets in four completed first-class matches (he also took three wickets in Mumbai's first innings in the Irani Trophy) since he was dropped from the Test squad. But considering the number of left-handers in Australia's lineup and Harbhajan's record against the tourists in India (81 wickets in 12 Tests) he could find himself playing his 100th Test sooner than later.
Probable squad: MS Dhoni (capt/wk), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ashok Dinda/Sreesanth
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