Thursday, August 14, 2014

What can stay the same, and what needs to change

India’s capitulation at Old Trafford has to rank as amongst the three worst performances by an Indian cricket team in the last three decades that I have followed cricket. The other two were the debacles at the Oval in 2011 and at Perth in 2012. The only two common threads in the three defeats are M.S. Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher, but more on that later. It is time to analyze dispassionately what aspects of this team need to change, and which aspects we need to persist with and show patience towards. That is the subject of this post.

Without question, the failures that have hurt us most in this series are those of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. In 15 years, the only series in which Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar both failed was in Dravid’s last one in Australia. Having both pillars of our batting fail together is obviously a huge blow. But it is not a matter of concern to me. Pujara and Kohli are both class acts who have proven themselves in conditions abroad; all batsmen go through lean patches; and it is our poor fortune that theirs has come together, after years of consistent success. But both are just one good innings away from returning to form, and they both remain central to any prospect of success we might have in Australia later in the year.

Many questions have also been asked about our seam attack, but that too is not a worry for me. It is true that this is a young, raw and inconsistent attack. But it is an attack full of potential, and with proper guidance, these are bowlers who will only get better. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma (when fit) have been outstanding, and provide a potentially potent new ball partnership for the long term. Varun Aaron bowled with fire and genuine promise at Old Trafford. Pankaj Singh bowled too many four-balls; but he was also desperately unlucky, toiled manfully through his misfortune, showed the capacity to bowl long spells, and on occasion worked up pretty useful pace. He has had to work harder than most to get his chance, and he deserves a proper run before judgment is passed on him. Ishwar Pandey has been the outstanding seam bowler in domestic cricket over the past couple of years, has genuine potential, and has been kept on the bench for too long. And Mohammed Shami, who has been the one disappointment amongst the seamers, is a special talent who deserves a long rope, especially since this is his first failure in 10 months of international cricket. I also like the selectors’ idea of selecting 6 seamers for a long tour such as this, because it provides back-up options in case of injury and poor form and allows for rotation in case of tiredness. It is a policy worth pursuing in Australia, and we have the right personnel in these six seamers to provide a varied and challenging attack if they are properly used.

I would argue that the real problems are four-fold, as follows:

First – the opening partnership. Murali Vijay has been a revelation in England, but serious questions have been asked of Shikhar Dhawan’s technique. Of course Dhawan has done well elsewhere over the past 18 months, including in New Zealand, so it is too early to give up on him. But he has also failed his two sternest tests, in South Africa and England, so it is also hard to place too much confidence in his abilities to tackle Mitchell Johnson and co. in Australian conditions. From the perspective of team balance, having an opening partnership that can fire is essential, and the fact that we have not had a single half-century opening partnership abroad since 2011 is one of the central reasons for our poor performance abroad.

This is why the first major change to be made is to find two openers who have the technique to succeed on fast pitches abroad. Vijay has indicated enough to suggest that he is one of them; Dhawan may or may not be the other. But Gautam Gambhir is certainly not the solution to this problem, and his selection in the 18 to tour England was misplaced. Gambhir was never the strongest batsman technically; what allowed him his success between 2008 and 2010 was his strong temperament. But there have been no signs of that temperament for over three years now. Gambhir’s selection for this tour was not based on any form – his performances for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy last year were distinctly ordinary – but was purely a function of past reputation. That cannot be the basis for selecting him for a tour as difficult as Australia. As far as I am concerned, this is the end of the road for Gambhir.

The answer to our opening conundrum lies in Lokesh Rahul. He is technically quite simply the best young prospect in India today, and his form for Karnataka has been outstanding. He should have been the third opener in England, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the best bet as Vijay’s opening partner in Australia. He must be brought in to replace Gambhir.

Second – we need a halfway decent spin attack. It is a shame that in recent years our spinners have been out-bowled not just by quality bowlers like Graeme Swann, but by trundlers like Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali. It is easy to forget that some of our memorable successes abroad in the 2000s were on the backs of quality spin performances, invariably by Anil Kumble. Unless one has a seam attack of the caliber of the current Australian or South African attack, the absence of a quality spinner will hurt.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja do not constitute a halfway decent spin attack. Both are cricketers with merit – but more as a function of their overall utility rather than because of their quality as spinners per se. Jadeja indeed was drafted into the side not for his bowling but for the triple hundreds he churned out for Saurashtra – batting form that has rarely materialized while playing for India. Indeed, Jadeja has looked at best a number 8 batsman in Tests. This would be fine if his bowling compensated, but it is bowling that is clearly suited only to Indian conditions: after his 6-wicket haul in his first overseas Test at Durban, he has shown no penetration in either New Zealand or England. Ashwin in contrast came into the side as a bowler who could bat a bit, but it is his batting that has been the revelation. He was one of our best batsmen in Australia in 2011, and looked better than any of our frontline batsmen in Old Trafford. But all of his bowling successes have been in sub-continental conditions. Having one of these two in a playing 11 could be useful because they do lend balance to the side, providing a fifth bowling option and batting skills. But playing them both and pretending that we have a dual spin attack is a joke – basically, this means that even if on paper we are playing 5 bowlers, in practice two of them are bits-and-pieces cricketers and we are left with only three frontline bowlers. I do think that Ashwin has an important role to play in our Test plans in Australia (on which more below). But neither Ashwin nor Jadeja alone can be expected to take on the role of lead spinner, and having them both in the side together doesn’t make up for the absence of a genuine spinner who can provide an attacking yet reliable option.

The only person who can play that role in India today is Pragyan Ojha, and it is simply scandalous that we have tried Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra (miserable flops in England in 2011), Ashwin (miserable flop in Australia in 2011, South Africa in 2013) and Jadeja (miserable flop in New Zealand and England 2014); but our steadiest, most dependable spinner has not had a single Test match outside the sub-continent. Ojha is someone who can keep things tight, but who also has natural flight and loop and can attack; he is someone who has a solid temperament, and who has never let the team down; he is someone who picked up 10 wickets and a man of the match award in the last Test he played, against the West Indies in Mumbai. He would be the first bowler I would put on a team sheet, and it is high time he got his due.

Third – we need a number 6 who can play a role with both bat and ball. There is no way we can win matches abroad without 5 bowlers. But our batting is brittle enough that we cannot afford to have a batting line-up that ends at no. 5 in order to accommodate that fifth bowler. I am not looking for a Kapil Dev here – there is no one in India of that caliber. What I am looking for is either a Ravi Shastri – a support bowler who is good enough to bat at 6 – or a Sourav Ganguly – a frontline batsman who can be relied upon to bowl 10-15 overs and pick up a wicket or two in conditions abroad.

I had hoped that Jadeja would play a Shastri-esque role, but his batting is not even good enough for a reliable no. 7, let alone no. 6. Yet the person who can play that role is Ashwin. He has technical solidity, all the shots, and is comfortable against the short ball. He is good enough to be groomed as a long-term no. 6. I don’t have confidence that he can be relied upon as a frontline spinner, but he would certainly make an excellent support spinner to Ojha and be a genuine fifth bowler. Similarly, Rohit Sharma is no Ganguly, either with the ball or with the bat, and like Jadeja has shown no indication that he has what it takes to succeed outside the sub-continent. But Manoj Tiwary is a frontline batsman who has constantly improved as a bowler, and could well play the kind of fifth bowler role that a Ganguly or a Michael Clarke have played for their respective teams. Purely on batting merit, Tiwary is far more deserving than Rohit, and has shown substance and consistency over the years in four-day cricket. In contrast, Rohit has earned his Test spot largely on the basis of pretty T20 cameos and Dhoni’s favoritism. Add Tiwary’s superior bowling skills, and bringing him in for Rohit should be a no-brainer. Having both Ashwin and Tiwary in the side as possible number 6 provides the captain with multiple options, of either strengthening the batting or the bowling depending on the conditions, but without sacrificing the other as the case currently is.

This brings me to the fourth and most important point, the captain. Dhoni got many kudos for his captaincy at Lord’s, but he was helped by an inspired spell from Ishant, and by English ineptness. Since that win, he has reverted to form with a vengeance – muddled team selections, peculiar bowling changes, bizarre field placements and a fundamentally defensive mentality. This is not new; our record abroad since 2011 now reads 1-12 in 15 matches. And Dhoni has shown no sign of learning from his mistakes. I would rather we lose under a raw captain who learns from his mistakes than under a stubborn captain who keeps repeating them over and over. In addition, what has gone without scrutiny is Dhoni’s miserable keeping this series – failure to go for chances that he should have taken, botched run-outs and the like. His batting has been better than it has been in the past; but even there, Wriddhiman Saha with his better technique, and Naman Ojha, fresh from a 500+ run series in Australia for India A, are likely to be more successful in Australia. Meanwhile, the less said about Duncan Fletcher’s non-performance as coach, the better. You mark my words: if we send a team to Australia with Kohli as captain, Anil Kumble as coach and Sanjay Bangar as assistant coach, this group of youngsters will give the Aussies a run for their money.

What I am asking for, in effect, is simple: a team that has two openers with solid technique; a number 6 who has adequate batting and bowling skills to lend balance to the side; a genuine frontline spinner; and a captain who has some modicum of attacking sensibility and willingness to learn from his mistakes. This is not rocket science. We have the personnel for this in Lokesh Rahul, Ravichandran Ashwin / Manoj Tiwary, Pragyan Ojha and Virat Kohli respectively. What we need is the vision and courage, from somewhere, to take on the Dhoni-Srinivasan mafia and implement these basic and necessary changes.

[Post-script: and what of the Oval? Unfortunately, Rahul, Tiwary and Ojha are not options there, and Dhoni is not going to step down or make way for another captain. At this point, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being bold, so I would make the following changes. First, send Ashwin up to open with Vijay. He has looked far more solid than either Dhawan or Gambhir, and he certainly can’t do worse than them. It won’t be a long-term move, but would be the first step to signaling that his place in the side is as a top 6 batsman who can bowl. Second, bring Naman Ojha in as a specialist batsman at 6. He has better technique and is in far better form than Rohit. Third, and obviously, bring the fit again Ishant Sharma back in for Pankaj Singh. Since the Oval traditionally takes spin, I am inclined to give Jadeja another chance; but there is a case also for giving Ishwar Pandey a go instead to see what he can do, especially if there is some grass on the wicket; or even persisting with Pankaj for another game as third seamer].

My team for the Oval: Vijay, Ashwin, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Ojha, Dhoni, Jadeja / Pandey / Pankaj, Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron

And for Australia: Vijay, Rahul, Pujara, Kohli ©, Rahane, Ashwin / Tiwary, Saha (W), Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Aaron, P. Ojha (Reserves: Dhawan, Tiwary / Ashwin, N. Ojha (W), Shami, Pandey, Pankaj)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Brief thoughts before Old Trafford

Brief thoughts on 4th Test

I have not been able to blog about the last two Test matches in England. This is because, as Ajinkya Rahane was in the process of compiling his century at Lord’s, my father passed away. Cricket in this context is a rather low priority.

So I will just say some obvious things leading in to the Old Trafford Test. I do not have any sense of predictions of who will win this Test. Obviously, the momentum is with England after Southampton; but they are not a great team and are definitely beatable.

The critical question as always is team balance. In the first two Tests, we saw a new and improved version of Dhoni as captain; but in Southampton, he slipped back into his defensive comfort zone, and the result was obvious for all to see. For us to have a chance in Old Trafford, we must revert to playing 5 bowlers, and Ashwin must play ahead of Rohit Sharma. It is obvious that Ashwin adds more with the ball than Rohit does. But there is not even a trade-off here, as Ashwin also adds more with the bat – his batting performances outside the sub-continent are far superior to anything Rohit has managed.

There are two other changes to potentially think about. There is talk of Gautam Gambhir coming in for Shikhar Dhawan. Personally, I have faith in Dhawan – his form in this series has been poor, but so have Pujara’s and Kohli’s, and all three of them are one innings away from a good score. More importantly, I think Dhawan showed in New Zealand that he has the technique to play abroad. Meanwhile, Gambhir himself hasn’t set the world on fire, not even in domestic cricket, and the only reason he has even made the tour ahead of Lokesh Rahul or Jiwanjot Singh as the reserve opener is because of his experience. Still, I have always been an admirer of Gambhir’s temperament, and I have no issues if he is given a chance.

The bigger worry for me is Mohammed Shami. He certainly has potential, but he has been awful in this series so far. In addition, after playing 3 back-to-back Test matches, there are concerns about how he will pull up. He should definitely be replaced by either Varun Aaron or Ishwar Pandey. Aaron provides the x-factor of genuine pace on a wicket that will have pace and bounce (England it seems will almost certainly including Steven Finn to take advantage of this). But I personally prefer Pandey, who has been in outstanding form in domestic cricket; who has been waiting in the dressing room for the past 8 months; and who provides a like-for-like replacement for Ishant Sharma with his height and his ability to hit the deck. Especially on a bouncy Old Trafford pitch, he could be a handful.

Therefore, my team: Vijay, Gambhir / Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Dhoni, Jadeja, Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar, Pandey, Pankaj.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Trent Bridge preview

I have the following five points to make about the first India-England Test in Trent Bridge.

One: This will be a close-fought Test between two young and flawed teams that have a lot to prove. However, England will win. For all the criticism that has been heaped on them after the Ashes and then the defeat to Sri Lanka, they are still the better team than India is. Some of this has to do with home crowd advantage. Some of it has to do with the fact that if England has a rotten captain in Cook, then he has an equally poor opposite number in Dhoni – so the captaincy differential that existed when Cook was up against Michael Clarke or Angelo Matthews will be nullified. But there are some other factors that will work in England’s advantage that I will analyze below.

Two: India’s bowling attack has been much-maligned. However, I predict that this is an attack that will perform with potency. India’s attack often performs better than expected in Tests abroad, and in both South Africa and New Zealand they were extremely strong early in the series before flagging as the series went on. India may well need to draw on their well of 7 fast bowlers over a 5-Test series; but at the start of the series, their front-line seam combination of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami will be a handful for England’s young batting line-up. Ishant really stepped up to the plate in New Zealand, showing glimpses of the bowler who burst onto the world scene in his debut series in Australia; if he can keep up that kind of performance, he will be a huge threat. He will have excellent support from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose swing will be a handful in English conditions, and whose sound temperament makes him the more likely leader of the attack. Shami is still raw, but can be a potent strike bowling supplement to these two. And while Ravindra Jadeja won’t get too much purchase at Trent Bridge, he will at least keep things tight and not give too much away.

Three: The weakness in the attack however concerns not the beginning of a Test match, but the end. Quite often, our bowlers have tended to make early in-roads and leave even strong batting line-ups on the mat early in a game. What they have not been able to do is to finish things off, and this has been too consistent a problem to be wished away. Some of the failure to finish is Dhoni’s fault – his inability to seize the big moments in a Test match as captain is almost pathological, and I will say at the outset that it is his continued presence at the helm that will be the biggest contributing factor to our defeat in England. But some of it is also the fatigue that a four-man bowling attack constantly experiences. This is why even though it could potentially compromise our batting, it would be important for India to go in with the fifth bowler. That fifth bowler could be Ishwar Pandey, who would provide potent support to the three front-line seamers and really provide depth to our seam attack; or Ravichandran Ashwin, who would be a more defensive option in terms of bowling, but would add depth to our batting line-up. Either would be a far better bet than Rohit Sharma, who adds no value with the ball and hasn’t yet shown that he is good enough to bat in Tests abroad. And both would be better bets than Stuart Binny, who is little more than a bits-and-pieces player, and is certainly not a Test class batsman or bowler. The idea behind taking a seam-bowling all-rounder to England was a sound one, but Binny was the wrong man for the job. Had India punted on young Rishi Dhawan, as a number 8 batsman and a fourth seamer who could swing the ball around, then the balance of the team would have been ideal. As it stands, that was one of the biggest missed opportunities in selection.

Four: The real worry for me concerns our batting line-up. It is true that our young batsmen gave a good account of themselves in South African and New Zealand. But England is a different ball game simply because conditions change so much even during the course of an innings, because of the rapidly changing weather. As Rahul Dravid has pointed out, this often means making both technical and mindset adjustments constantly during the course of an innings. Experience therefore counts for more in England than in any other part of the world, and our lack of experience will hurt. Cheteshwar Pujara is good enough to make the necessary adjustments to succeed, and is yet to be dismissed in the warm-up games. But our best batsman in terms of star power is undoubtedly Virat Kohli, who has shown the talent and temperament to adjust quickly to any condition that he has played in. I won’t say that Kohli is the next Tendulkar because no one can be; but I do think of him as the closest there is to Ricky Ponting in contemporary cricket. However, Pujara and Kohli will have a big burden to shoulder, given that our openers are inexperienced, and Murali Vijay in particular has yet to show that he has what it takes to succeed in Tests. I would personally prefer to see Gautam Gambhir in the starting line-up opening with Dhawan: he has shown good form in the warm-up games, and his added experience will be invaluable. India will also need to see Dhoni up to the plate with the bat, as the other batsman with experience, especially since if we play 5 bowlers as we should, then we need him to bat at no. 6.

Five: England’s batting line-up mirrors ours in many ways. The real threat there is Ian Bell, more than the woefully out-of-form Cook. For all of Cook’s consistency over the years, it is Bell who is the one class act in that line-up now that Kevin Pietersen’s career has ended, and Bell now has to play KP’s role as no. 4 and playmaker. He has always been a danger in English conditions, and has always enjoyed playing against India. Like India, England also has a couple of young batsmen with immense promise, especially Joe Root and Moeen Ali. And they bat deep, with Stuart Broad, a constant thorn in our side in the past, coming in as late as 9. The real threat in my opinion however comes from their bowlers. They do lack a quality spinner, but with Pragyan Ojha being kept out of the side for some completely mysterious reason, so do we – and in Trent Bridge, it is the seamers who will determine the fate of a bowling attack in any case. England’s four-man attack will be a handful, and James Anderson, though perhaps in the twilight of his career, will be a real danger. He still, in my mind, is the best swing bowler in world cricket today, and on his day can crack a game open in a single spell. In seam-friendly conditions against an inexperienced line-up, he is England’s ticket to an early win in the series.

Prediction: England wins a close game thanks to a match-defining spell from Anderson to go 1-0 up. 

Selection calls: Gambhir to open instead of Vijay; a fifth bowler in either Ashwin or Ishwar Pandey to play at 8 instead of the extra batsman.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Team in England, A team to Australia

The annual tamasha of the IPL is over, and the serious business of the summer is about to begin in England. The selectors have just announced the team, and as is usually the case with this selection committee, it is a good one (though I have some specific disagreements which I elaborate below). However, I find it increasingly difficult to get excited about Indian cricket anymore. Normally a series against England would be one of the biggest cricketing events to look forward to for an India fan. And old habits die hard, so I am still hoping that we can rub England’s nose in the sand. But there are so few Indian players of this current team who generate respect or excitement. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are the exceptions, and are two players of class and dignity who have already had to fight the odds and discriminatory treatment to reach where they have; Virat Kohli deserves respect simply because of his staggering consistency. Beyond that, there are good players, but no ambassadors for the sport. The contrast to the previous generation could not be starker.

On paper, I do think we are better than England at the moment. Since the debacle in 2011, there has been consistent rebuilding on our part, while the bottom has fallen out from under England’s chair this winter Down Under, with no obvious replacements for Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann on the horizon. Unlike in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, we are also facing a mediocre captain in Alastair Cook. However, I still don’t see us winning this series, for the simple reason that our side is still being led by M.S. Dhoni.

For all the restructuring of the past three years, for all the strong decisions made by the Sandeep Patil selection committee, in spite of the fact that with most others in the side it is performance that gets you in and keeps you there, Dhoni has been given a free ride. He has never been the best keeper in the country, a title that belongs unquestionably to Wriddhiman Saha, who is the best wicket-keeper India has produced since Syed Kirmani. The difference between the batting abilities of the two was there to see when we were last in Australia, Saha’s composed 35 in Adelaide a stark contrast to Dhoni, who was a walking wicket every time he came in to bat. But the real problem is that Dhoni is not an adequate Test match captain. His ultra-defensive, sit back and wait approach has cost us at least five wins in the 12 Tests we have played abroad since mid-2011. It is not a one-off, this is not a learning curve, this is the way he thinks, and he is set in his ways.

Dilip Vengsarkar has suggested that we will lose because we don’t have the bowling to take 20 wickets, but I don’t agree. We have a genuine fast bowler who can hit 150; another who can swing the ball both ways in the 140s; a third who can hit the deck and jag it around; a fourth who is a huge swing bowler of the sort who will thrive in English conditions; and two more who, although untried at the international level, have been stellar performers on the domestic circuit. I would have preferred the experience and variety that Zaheer Khan would have brought, and think his exclusion was a mistake. I would prefer greater quality in our spin attack, and think that the exclusion of Pragyan Ojha, without a doubt the best spinner in the country, is the real scandal of this selection (much more than the much-contested inclusion of Stuart Binny). And I would have preferred Umesh Yadav, who has proven himself at international level, to Varun Aaron, who struggles to find his radar more often than not. But the fact is that, in terms of seam at least, we have depth and variety in the attack, even if it is inexperienced. The real problem is that we don’t have a captain who knows how to utilize it.

Most likely, Dhoni will retain his stubborn insistence on going in with four bowlers – fueled by a fear of batting himself at number 6, and by his favoritism towards Rohit Sharma, who on merit now cannot supersede Pujara, Kohli or Rahane in the middle order. He will also retain his stubborn insistence on playing a spinner, mainly because he is worried about over rates. Ravi Ashwin is yet to show any capacity to succeed outside the sub-continent, in any format; Ravi Jadeja will at least keep it tight, but having a batting all-rounder in the side at 8 as your lead spinner is not a move calculated to win Test matches. If we were going to be playing 4 bowlers with a mandatory spinner in the side, then having Pragyan Ojha – who can keep it tight on batting-friendly tracks, but also toss the ball up and attack in a manner than Jadeja cannot – would have been essential. But no doubt Dhoni insisted on Ashwin and Jadeja not because of their bowling skills, but because they provide better batting options than Ojha does. This means that we are effectively going to be playing with three wicket-taking bowlers over a five-match series, a sure recipe for injury and breakdown. It’s just as well the selectors have stocked the side with six seamers.

If India is to have any hope of winning this series, they have to play 5 bowlers. This means a batting line-up of two openers, followed by Pujara, Kohli and Rahane, with Dhoni at 6 (though Saha would be the better bet on merit, as keeper and as no. 6). 7 and 8 then would be a toss-up between Jadeja, Ashwin and Binny. This is why I think there is a case for Binny’s selection in the side – having the option of a seam-bowling all-rounder on a long Test series is always good. (I don’t think Binny is the best one there is in India – I would personally have preferred Himachal’s Rishi Dhawan, who is a genuine swing bowler and the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy this season – but the idea is sound). The choice between Jadeja and Ashwin meanwhile would be a tricky one. Ironically, while Ashwin came into the side as a potential strike bowler, it is Jadeja who has looked the more reliable bowler across all conditions. And equally ironically, while Jadeja got his call up on the back of his triple centuries for Saurashtra, it is Ashwin who has looked the better batsman in conditions abroad. But if two of these three play, it would allow a top 5 of specialist batsmen, with five bowlers, and yet batting strength down to 8. 9, 10 and 11 would be the three frontline seamers. Bhuvnesh, Ishant and Shami would be the obvious first-choice candidates, and the selectors have provided a good like-for-like back-up for each in case of injury, poor form or a need for rest: Pankaj Singh is a medium-based swing bowler like Bhuvnesh, Ishwar Pandey hits the deck from a height like Ishant, and Aaron provides a genuine fast-bowling option to back Shami up. If only Dhoni was to be injured and we had Saha in the line-up with Kohli as captain, this would be a line-up to win the series with, even though we would still miss Ojha’s versatility and Zaheer’s skill.

As a background to this series however, an equally important series will be played out, which is the India A series in Australia next month. And the selection for that series is almost as important as the one for this series has been. This is because it will give us an opportunity to test bench strength, and have a back-up of players who can step into the side to Australia this winter to replace anyone who might fail to cut it in England. So I turn next to the selection of this A side. There has been much talk of players who have succeeded in the IPL, but I stick to my guns in saying that IPL performances count for nothing when one is considering national selection. Instead, I will go by performances in domestic cricket, which has thrown up some genuinely attractive prospects who deserve a closer look.

The first three names I will pencil in are of the three who should have been in England but are not: Zaheer (who I still think has a series in Australia this winter left in him, fitness permitting), Ojha and Umesh. I also think that it is essential to try out a couple of all-rounders at 7 so that we can see what other options we might have to fall back on in case Binny, Jadeja and Ashwin don’t cut it. As I have said, Rishi Dhawan is the obvious man to take a look at here as a seam bowling all-rounder. As a spin-bowling all-rounder, I’d take Madhya Pradesh’s Jalaj Saxena, who has been in fine bowling form, and is a good enough bat to even open for his state. This leaves 5 batsmen, a keeper, a third seamer and the reserves to still select.

Let’s start with openers. Robin Uthappa would be the obvious one. He has earned his recall to the Indian ODI side through strong IPL performances, but it is his improving performance for Karnataka over the past two years that makes me think he is worth looking at in the longer format as well. A hard-hitting, quick-scoring opener is always an asset in Tests, and while Shikhar Dhawan has stepped into Virender Sehwag’s shoes admirably, Uthappa could play a similar role. He has always had the strokes. What he lacked in the past was patience and shot selection, couple with a tendency to play across the line. Ever since he appointed Praveen Amre as his personal coach two years ago, both have improved, and what really impresses now is his ability to drive absolutely straight in the V. Uthappa was actually Dhawan’s contemporary as an India under-19 player, and was probably fast-tracked into the national side too soon, without any first class cricket under his belt. Dhawan meanwhile improved his game through years of grind on the first-class circuit. Uthappa has had to go back to a similar kind of grind, and the benefits are there to see. I think Uthappa has a real chance of being part of our plans for the next World Cup, but I think there might even be a future for him in the longer format.

For his opening partner, we need to look at two of the brightest young stars coming through the ranks today, Lokesh Rahul and Jiwanjot Singh. Rahul opens with Uthappa for Karnataka, and is his namesake Rahul Dravid’s protégé. Like Dravid, he is technically correct and full of class, and he has made piles of runs for Karnataka this year. Jiwanjot is a little younger, and has only two first-class seasons under his belt. But he has been a resounding success in both, getting runs on seam-friendly tracks in Mohali, and it is time to give him a chance on a bigger stage. He is primarily a back-foot player, very strong square of the wicket, which could give him success on bouncy Australian tracks.

The middle order is straightforward. Ambati Rayudu and Kedhar Jadhav have been knocking at the doors for a while now, and this is a good chance for both to prove themselves abroad. At no. 5, I would pick Manish Pandey, another Karnataka lad who promised much as a youngster, failed for a few years to deliver on his promise, but who has come into his own in his mid-20s to stake a claim to greater heights. He has come into the limelight on the basis of his performance in the IPL finals, but he has a string of strong performances in the Ranji Trophy before this which is why he should be in contention. Parthiv Patel meanwhile is the obvious choice for keeper who can bat at 6. Ashok Dinda has along with Pankaj Singh been the most consistent seam bowler in domestic cricket over the past 5 years. Pankaj deserves his spot on the plane to England, but Dinda, who was never given a fair run in spite of being on the fringes of selection for a while, at least deserves to remain in the picture.

Finally, there are two other reserves who deserve to be selected. The first is a reserve middle-order batsman, and here I would go with Baba Aparajith, who has the ability to be a long-term batting all-rounder for India. Aparajith impressed with his technically correct batting, his useful off-spin, and his stunning slip fielding as part of the victorious under-19 World Cup side in Australia a couple of years ago. Since then, he has taken his performances to the first class stage, making lots of runs for Tamilnadu in spite of the failures of those around him. Aparajith has the temperament of a Test player, exhibiting the calm under pressure that one associates with the likes of Dravid and Laxman, Pujara and Rahane. I am delighted that this selection committee has not been rushing under-19 players into international cricket; but Aparajith is the exceptional member of that victorious 2012 squad, and he is ready at least for exposure to A team cricket.

The second is a reserve seamer, and here I would ignore the likes of Mohit Sharma (who seems distinctly ordinary to me, and at best purely a T20 bowler) to go with one of the most exciting finds of this past domestic season, Railways’ Anureet Singh. He didn’t play much in the IPL and so is not a name on everyone’s lips; but he is someone who consistently bowls in the 140s, and had a big role to play in the strong showing of an otherwise humble side. He is still young and raw, but has genuine potential; it would be good to give him a taste of Australian conditions, and he is definitely one to watch closely in the upcoming domestic season.

Therefore, my playing 11 in England would be:

1.       Murali Vijay / Gautam Gambhir (depending on form in tour games)
2.       Shikhar Dhawan
3.       Cheteshwar Pujara
4.       Virat Kohli (V)
5.       Ajinkya Rahane
6.       Mahendra Dhoni © (W) (alas. Saha, if merit was the criterion)
7.       Ravindra Jadeja / Ravichandran Ashwin / Stuart Binny
8.       Ravindra Jadeja / Ravichandran Ashwin / Stuart Binny
9.       Bhuvneshwar Kumar (back up: Pankaj Singh)
10.   Ishant Sharma (back up: Ishwar Pandey)
11.   Mohammed Shami (back up: Varun Aaron)

And my India ‘A’ team to Australia would be:

1.       Lokesh Rahul / Jiwanjot Singh
2.       Robin Uthappa
3.       Ambati Rayudu
4.       Kedhar Jadhav
5.       Manish Pandey
6.       Parthiv Patel (V) (W)
7.       Rishi Dhawan / Jalaj Saxena
8.       Zaheer Khan ©
9.       Ashok Dinda
10.   Umesh Yadav
11.   Pragyan Ojha


12.   Jiwanjot Singh / Lokesh Rahul
13.   Baba Aparajith
14.   Anureet Singh
15.   Jalaj Saxena / Rishi Dhawan