Harbhajan Singh hopeful of getting back into Indian team for fourth Test against England

Harbhajan Singh has picked up 408 wickets for India in 99 Test matches © PTI

Mumbai: Feb 9, 2013

The debacles of the past year and a half would weigh heavy on the national selectors when they meet here tomorrow to pick the squad for the eagerly-awaited Test series against Australia with the form of key players being a massive concern.

The challenge before the committee is to put together a winning team combination after three comprehensive series defeats against top opponents and players like Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina and S Sreesanth are among those hoping to earn a Test recall.

The successive whitewashes against England and Australia in away tours were somewhat offset by series wins at home over a lower-ranked West Indies and New Zealand.

However, the 1-2 reversal against England in their last rubber at home has caused concern about some senior players.

The biggest among them is the opening combination of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir both of whom flopped in these rubbers.

But lack of an effective alternative could force the selectors into retaining the duo, at least for the beginning of the series against Australia commencing on February 22 at the M A Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.

While Sehwag, who has a phenomenal Test record, scored a century in the opening Test against England, Gambhir’s highest score in the last 16 Tests he has figured in is a 93 at Cape Town against South Africa 25 months ago.

The left-handed Delhi batsman’s ninth and last Test century came against Bangladesh in Chittagong one year further back, and the worrying fact for the selectors is his steep decline in the limited overs formats of the game too.

Even more importantly is their inability to fire in unison and lay the platform for a shaky middle order to build on.

Murali Vijay was the reserve opener in the series against England without playing a game and should retain his place after the fine century he scored against Mumbai in the Irani Cup tie against Rest of India at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

If the selectors want another alternative, there is the seasoned Wasim Jaffer who has five Test tons in his career but lost his place in 2008 after the Kanpur game against South Africa.

He has scored heavily in domestic cricket and has now reverted to opening slot too for Mumbai and made an attractive 80 against the Rest of India attack in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar’s lack of form has also hit the Indians hard and the five selectors, who watched him crack a glorious unbeaten 140 yesterday for Ranji Trophy champions Mumbai, must be happy that he seems to have rediscovered his once-glorious touch.

While Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli are certainties, there are quite a few claimants like Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary and Yuvraj Singh for some of the other middle-order spots.

Raina lost his place after an indifferent show in the two-match rubber that India swept against New Zealand at the beginning of this season and also notched up a stroke-filled century for Rest of India in the ongoing Irani game to bounce back into contention.

Rahane also scored an impressive 83 in the match for Mumbai, but the other three have done nothing much.

Rohit flopped and threw away his wicket in the match here while Yuvraj was not even picked for this game, after losing his place in the last Test against England at Nagpur to Ravindra Jadeja.

With Mahendra Singh Dhoni expected to be retained as the captain-cum-wicketkeeper, there is a vacancy for utility players and Jadeja is likely to retain his spot courtesy his good form in the limited overs matches.

Pace bowling is a big worry, with Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav carrying injuries and news reports appearing that Ishant Sharma’s ankle is also causing him trouble. He has denied it but the selectors have to scratch their heads to come up with a good combination. 

S Sreesanth has come back from his injury lay-off and the temperamental Kerala pacer impressed when bowling to Tendulkar yesterday, getting good two-way movement and showing a lot of aggression with the ball.

He could get a call-up after being omitted following the 0-4 rout in England and then underwent a toe surgery. From the 15 who were picked for the Nagpur match against England, Parwinder Awana is set to be left out.

The other contenders for the pacers’ spots are Ashok Dinda, picked in the 15 but not played at the VCA Stadium game, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, who have impressed in T20s and ODIs against Pakistan and England, and Abhimanyu Mithun.

Senior off-spinner Harbhajan Singh could also get another call-up after being dropped for the last Test against England without figuring in the playing XI in the previous game at Kolkata.

The poor form of his chief rival R Ashwin might prompt this move, especially after his three-wicket haul yesterday while leading the Rest of India, though the latter could also be retained considering the number of left-handed batsmen in the Australian line-up.

Pragyan Ojha and Piyush Chawla both played in Nagpur and while the former appears to be a certainty, the leg-spinner, who took four wickets in that drawn game against England, is also in the running.