India go to Tests without fail-safe

The Indian squad for the first three Tests in England was named on Wednesday, and the only sigh of disappointment came due to the unavailability of Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
“Kaisey ho? Sab theek thaak? England mein chamakna hai, yeh toh tera series hai, raaje!” That’s the last chat coach Vipin Vats, the man who shaped Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s wrists from a young age, remembers. “He never speaks much; not an unnecessary word will leave his mouth, and even that day, he said, ‘Sab theek hai, sir’.” As it has turned out, not everything has gone right. It’s like Roger Federer missing Wimbledon. Well, sort of.

The Indian squad for the first three Tests in England was named on Wednesday, and the only sigh of disappointment came due to the unavailability of Bhuvneshwar, who was one of the leading lights on the last tour four years ago, due to a “lower back condition”. The Uttar Pradesh swing merchant played missed out on a big part of the limited-overs leg of the tour but was drafted in the side for the ODI series decider on Tuesday. He was far from his best and looked distinctly unfit and struggling for rhythm.

Through the last year and a half when Bhuvneshwar amped up his pace and rediscovered his swing, fans have been salivating about England, just like Vats. A man with innate skill to bend the red ball, a bowler whose cricketing intelligence and ambition soared up in last few years, a hard worker who added yorkers and knuckle balls, and a ticking brain that thought out batsmen – a bowler at his prime for his destiny in England, won’t be there now.

The only silver lining for India is that he won’t be pulling out on the first day like Zaheer Khan once did. That’s clutching at straws, though. The absence of India’s best seamer is a sucker punch. It’s like Veeru going to nab Gabbar Singh without Jai. Yes, it can be done as the movie showed but what a bloody waste and letdown this is. Never mind the havoc it might create on the end result, this is a killjoy of epic proportions. What would we miss? The red ball suddenly swerving this way and that, that bouncer whose venom still surprises even though one has seen it for two years at least now, and India’s only seamer for whom you would not use the debilitating adjective, ‘on his day’. On his day, Ishant Sharma can create some serious damage; on his day, Umesh Yadav can clatter the stumps; on his day, Mohammed Shami can consistently irritate the hell out of batsmen with his strangling lines and length; but Bhuvneshwar didn’t need that back-handed compliment. His off days surprised you, unlike the others.

Vats, who isn’t as involved with Bhuvneshwar as before (“He is a sorted guy, he has reached a stage where he can take care of himself”), is pained that a back injury would rob the young bowler of his destiny. “Couldn’t his injury have happened on some other tour? Why England?” That’s the way it goes, sometimes, and India would now have to hope Ishant, who has done quite well in recent times, continues to step up, Shami can leave his recent off-field controversies behind and hit his stride, and Yadav can find consistency. Hope has replaced assuredness in the Indian camp – or at least in the way outsiders would see it now.

Rohit’s Groundhog Day

There isn’t much else in the selection of the squad to sweat about. Except for the Groundhog Day experience that has always hovered over Rohit Sharma. Every time India is set to play a Test series, Indian cricket plays out the same scene on a loop. The sources will say selectors are waiting for one more game to see Sharma bat; a few former players will ooh and aah about his talent; a foreign cricketer, usually from the team set to play against India that series, would talk about the thrill of watching him bat in whites; the Mumbai media would unearth old cricketers who haven’t seen the Arabian sea in years, to ooze praise on him — all possible ways to fit him into the squad would be discussed as opposed to see if he fits in.

This time also, news reports surfaced that selectors were waiting for that last one-day game to see how he goes. Seriously? It’s unfair not only to Indian cricket, even to him. How about this never-before-thought-about idea? How about letting him force his way in to the team like VVS Laxman did over a three-year period out of Indian team?

It’s a series that will test out Murali Vijay as well. There wasn’t much hand wringing about his selection but there would be if he slips up here. A below par series in South Africa hasn’t set him up for this series as well as he would have hoped. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for him. Complacency has a way of making him drift, and he now knows he can ill afford to do that this series. Kuldeep in. Finally.

So, the selectors have gone for all the three spinners in the race. It’s to Kuldeep’s credit that the other thought even popped up in many a head: Can we drop Ravindra Jadeja if there was space for just two spinners? Even now, if there is a scope for just one spinner in the playing XI, India would be wise to take a punt on Kuldeep. Is it harsh on R Ashwin or Jadeja? If you try answering that question, you go straight back into the Rohit loop – of trying to fit a player in the team than the other way around. Of course, it’s very harsh. but is it stupid to not include Kuldeep? It’s worth going over a story that Sunil Gavaskar likes to recount. The earlier generation might remember the immense brouhaha and suspicion that it was Gavaskar who once dropped Kapil Dev for a Test. Last year, at a function to hail Kapil, Gavaskar said: “The popular impression then was that I had dropped Kapil. Which captain would be idiot and silly to drop your one match winner. Whatever else I might have been, I am not an idiot!”

A similar sentiment should prevail now about Kuldeep. Can he leak 150 runs and go wicketless in the Test? Yes, he might. But, especially in the absence of Bhuvneshwar, India needs a potential trump card. And in the current circumstances, it has to be him.