Ashwin or Ojha? Laxman or Rohit - Tough questions before India's think tank

In the running for a place in the XI for the third Test — Rohit Sharma and Pragyan Ojha © AFP © Getty Images


By Nishad Pai Vaidya


A plethora of questions lies before Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the Indian team management as they gear up for Perth – the scene of India’s memorable triumph in 2008. The abject surrender during the run-chase at Melbourne and the meek submission at Sydney have unleashed an army of critics who have suggested various options to blend in new spirit for the third Test.


India head to Perth with a similar scoreline they faced four years ago. However, the scenarios are contrasting. The 2007-08 series was marred by the controversial Sydney Test as the focus shifted away from the contest between bat and ball. This time around, the tourists find themselves cornered due to the appalling standards they have displayed on the field.


The VVS Laxman or Rohit Sharma debate has been raging since the defeat at Sydney with various ex-cricketers supporting the exclusion of the Hyderabadi batsman. The litany of India’s batting woes seems to have eclipsed the struggles of the bowling attack that got battered at Sydney. In the midst of the intense exchange of thoughts, former India captain Sourav Ganguly’s comments on replacing Ravichandran Ashwin with Pragyan Ojha have been pushed into oblivion.


Ashwin’s introduction into Test cricket was phenomenal; he was India’s star performer in the home series against the West Indies. His five-wicket haul on debut at Delhi helped set a win and he moved from strength to strength as the series progressed. The deception of his carom ball and other variations overshadowed Ojha’s efforts which were very crucial.


During the practice game at Canberra, Ashwin bowled an inspired spell to spark a collapse which sealed his place ahead of Ojha, who had been expensive during one of his outings.

When one opens the record books and looks at the performances of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh during their initial Tests in Australia, one would find that Ashwin is displaying a similar trend. The two stalwarts struggled to come to terms when exposed to Australian pitches and they weren’t able to replicate the dominance they displayed at home. Kumble managed to recover with consistent performances on subsequent tours, but Harbhajan’s sighting in the whites Down Under have been limited to four matches.


If the two ace spinners could struggle, one can assume that Ashwin’s plight is understandable. Nevertheless, the tour isn’t over and he might still be able to make a mark on the series. Axing him now may be premature.


Secondly, dropping Ashwin may not be the best move as he has had just one poor game. He had an average game atMelbourne, but the one at Sydney was the first wicketless match of his short Test career. Many have backed Virat Kohli by saying that axing him wouldn’t be the best solution in the long run as India are looking to groom players to succeed the “Big Three”. The same argument should apply in the case of Ashwin as well.


During his first series, Ashwin was touted as the perfect replacement for Harbhajan and two below par matches shouldn’t cut the wood holding the axe. Like Kohli, Ashwin too needs to be backed to develop into a long term option for India in Tests. It wouldn’t be very fair to drop him when you consider his encouraging performances prior to the Australian tour.


On the other hand, Ojha too has strong arguments in his favor. The left-arm spinner may not have Ashwin’s abundant variations. He is in the classical mould as his strength lies in his flight and the use of length to deceive the batsman. Ganguly pointed out that Ashwin hasn’t bowled well and Ojha may do well if he is drafted in.


Case in favour of Ojha


History tells us that left-arm spinners can make an impact at Perth. A look at the scorecards of the last five Tests at the WACA shows left-arm spinners have been amongst the wickets. Interestingly, all the successful bowlers have been visitors and that just furthers Ojha’s case for inclusion into the eleven.


In 2006-07, when England toured Australia, Monty Panesar’s five-wicket haul in the first innings gave the tourists hope of resurrecting their disastrous campaign for the coveted urn. When South Africa toured in 2008-09, Paul Harris picked up five wickets – match haul – in a game where the wickets column was dominated by the fast bowlers. Sulieman Benn was another left-armer who got the ball to talk when West Indies visited in 2009-10.


Dhoni and the team management may want to look at those scorecards before taking the decision. However, Ojha’s horror economy rate in the practice game may be playing at the back of his mind and might prove to be the crucial factor in Ashwin retaining his place in the eleven.


In 2007-08, the Indians made two inspired calls by picking Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan for the Perth Test in place of Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan. The two selections proved to be masterstrokes as Sehwag made crucial contributions upfront and Pathan put in a match-winning performance.


Laxman or Rohit? Ashwin or Ojha? These are the tough questions the team think tank will have to answer before 0-2 India take on Australia at the fiery WACA starting on Friday the 13th.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 21-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)