On Dilip Vengrsarkar’s 52nd birthday it was business as usual for the chairman of the national selection committee when he and his colleagues met in Ahmedabad after the second Test debacle and chose to drop RP Singh from the squad for the final Test at Kanpur starting on April 11. Munaf Patel, who came in for sharp criticism from Vengsarkar in the past, earned a recall.
The batting, which collapsed spectacularly to be shot out for only 76 escaped unscathed with everyone retaining their places in Sachin Tendulkar’s absence through an aggravated groin strain.
The biggest concern, however, was the fitness of Anil Kumble, who is suffering from a groin niggle and has been far from his best in the two Tests of this series. Kumble, along with Ishant Sharma, who is recovering from injuries to the big toe of his landing foot and index finger of his bowling hand, will be assessed in a final fitness test on April 10 before this expanded squad of 16 is pruned down to 14.
With Murali Kartik still not fully fit from his freak ankle injury, the selectors sprung a bit of a surprise, calling up Ramesh Powar as cover for Kumble. With no standout spinner from the domestic season Powar’s experience won him a recall, with the Kanpur pitch expected to be a rank turner. Powar has had a disappointing domestic season, picking up only 25 wickets from 10 matches before being dropped from the West Zone squad for the Duleep Trophy. Spinners like Yusuf Pathan, who is really more of a batsman, and Mohnish Parmar, whose action always invites a second look, tasted more success than Powar but were overlooked.
With India going 0-1 down and needing a win to square the series, there’s very chance that three spinners will come into play in Kanpur. With this in mind, Kumble’s fitness and his availability to take the field becomes crucial. He has not hit his straps in this series just yet, picking up only four wickets at an average of more than 60. For years Kumble has been at the forefront of bowling in home Tests, winning matches single-handedly, and it is unusual to see him struggle as he has. In contrast, Harbhajan Singh has picked up 12 wickets at an acceptable 33.33.
Kumble’s ability to quickly turn things around, especially if there’s some variable bounce, is well documented, but the captain must be scratching his head wondering just what happened to India’s young quick bowlers. Not long ago the team was spoilt for choice but now they’re struggling to put two fit bowlers who can make early breakthroughs on the park. Sreesanth has gone off the boil and was rested while RP got what was coming to him.
Irfan Pathan may have justified his inclusion with useful runs, but his primary job is bowling and on that count he has been found wanting. His speed has dropped to friendly medium pace and there’s no swing to talk of. Pathan has become a clever bowler in one-day cricket, bowling canny cutters and taking the pace off the ball, but this doesn’t quite cut it in Test cricket.
In the two Tests that have gone by so far India’s quick bowlers have managed a pathetic three wickets between them in odious comparison to South Africa’s quicks who have prized out 26 wickets. While pace may not play a major role in the final Test - don’t be surprised if Sourav Ganguly takes the new ball - with Kumble not firing from all cylinders, it’s going to take a huge effort to pick up 20 South African wickets in the final Test.