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India tour of New Zealand 2014: Pragyan Ojha’s selection conundrum

Ojha
Indian selectors went for an extra pacer in Ishwar Pandey ahead of Pragyan Ojha for the tour of New Zealand © PTI

By Madhav Sharma

If we look at India’s touring party for New Zealand tour, apart from Pragyan Ojha, all other players selected for the South African tour have retained their spots in the squad. One can say that it’s a decision that has been made considering the conditions in New Zealand, and there’s no denying the fact that India need more power in their pace-battery. Ishwar Pandey, who has been selected in place of Ojha is a very promising fast bowler indeed. He has been a consistent performer at the domestic level, and those who have followed his cricket say that he’s a very good addition to the squad. So, picking an extra fast bowler and that too Ishwar Pandey, was a very good decision.

Now, the question for selectors and MS Dhoni was whom to drop from the squad that toured South Africa? It must have been a difficult decision because Ravichandran Ashwin, who is said to be the best spinner in the country doesn’t have a good record outside the subcontinent. Ashwin made a wonderful start to his Test career, but even since the start of his Test career, he has been a failure outside the subcontinent. His statistics show a contrasting difference between his performances home and away, and his failure to take up the role of a spearhead has hurt India. It also has had a very negative impact on his aspirations to be the best spinner in the country. Ashwin has a lot of variations in his armory, but rather than using them as variations or as a surprise element, he overdoes them, and this has been his biggest criticism. In the first Test against South Africa, Ashwin struggled to spin the bowl, and even though he’s a tall man, he struggled to generate any kind of bounce. He bowled flat throughout the Test match, and was subsequently dropped for the next game. Ashwin always gets the benefit of being a bowler who can also bat. It’s true that Ashwin adds more depth in the batting line-up, but irrespective of his batting abilities, his primary role in the team is that of a front line spinner.

After Ashwin’s poor show in the first Test match, Ravindra Jadeja was brought in to replace him in the playing eleven. Jadeja is a very intelligent bowler, and, unlike Ashwin, he doesn’t have too many variations up his sleeve. Jadeja was first looked upon only as a limited-overs bowler, as he used to bowl flat. However, as he played more matches for India, Jadeja transformed himself into a bowler who could bowl tight lines with subtle variations in pace and length. Jadeja made a great start to his Test career in the home series against Australia, in which he was India’s leading wicket-taker. In the second Test against South Africa, which was also his first away Test, Jadeja bowled brilliantly and took six wickets. Jadeja looks like someone who is fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He doesn’t try too many things and tries to keep it as simple as he can in the middle. And, just like Ashwin, Jadeja also enjoys the luxury of being a bowler who can bat, and this was the reason why he was picked ahead of Ojha in the second Test against South Africa. Although, Jadeja has a healthy First-Class batting average of 49.56, and has scored three triple centuries yet, there is a big question mark about his technique and temperament at the Test match level. He’s a good hitter of the cricket ball and has made some valuable contributions in the shorter formats of the game, but for Test cricket, he still needs to work hard on his game, if he wants to be called as an all-rounder.

Ojha is the most unglamorous of the lot. Not many know that he’s the third fastest Indian bowler to take 100 wickets (22 matches). Ojha is an old-fashioned Test spinner, who stays away from mystery deliveries and works on the principle of setting up a batsman. Ojha is a workhorse, and he bowls with a big heart. In subcontinental conditions, captains always look to start with a spinner, even in the Test matches, and Ojha has shown his ability to bowl well with the new ball too. Ojha bowled very well and showed a lot of control with the new ball, in the home series against New Zealand (2011), and England (2012). He certainly has the ability to spin the new ball and generate good bounce when the ball is hard. He also had a good county season with Surrey, which is a very rare feat for an Indian spinner. In fact, Ojha was the pick of the spinners in 2011 county season. He proved to his critics that he’s someone who can bowl well outside the subcontinent as well. His spell of six for 8 in 16.3 overs, against Northamptonshire, is one of the best spells by a spinner, one will ever get to see. In the race for the No 1 spinners slot, Ojha is nowhere close to Ashwin and Jadeja, as he can’t bat like the other two. Now, this is the only reason, he has been harshly overlooked, by the selectors.

Ojha didn’t even play a game in the series against South Africa, but still, he has been dropped by the selectors. And, Ashwin, who was mediocre to say the least, in the match he played, has retained his place in the team.

There can be a few reasons behind this move:

Ojha and Jadeja are both left-arm orthodox, and Ashwin’s presence will add more variety

Author’s take: In New Zealand, where conditions won’t support spin-bowling, India will play only one spinner. And, in this case, the variety argument, doesn’t stand a place. If only one  spinner has to play, then it doesn’t matter, whether he’s a left-arm orthodox or an off-spinner. Whoever is picked to play, should be a good spinner.

2) Ashwin’s ability to bat, and bat well cannot be overlooked

Author’s take: If Ashwin is considered to be an all-rounder then India should back his abilities, and he should bat at No 7, giving Dhoni a chance to play five bowlers, including Ashwin. It’s not a very wise move to ignore a quality spinner because he cannot provide a batting option at No 8 slot. This approach can be good for One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20s (T20s), but surely not for Test cricket.

(Madhav Sharma wanted to be a cricketer. Unfortunately, he has today more words than runs to his credit! He blogs athttp://madhavsharmacricket.wordpress.com/ and tweets at https://twitter.com/HashTagCricket)

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