One comprehensive loss, one game just about won and you would not think India would have problems of plenty when it came to team selection. But that’s just the situation they find themselves in ahead of the crucial third match of the series.
On Friday, the squad had an extended practice session, spread over two batches, with only Yuvraj Singh missing out with a stomach complaint, and by the end of it there were still more questions hanging than answers.
But for once, the problem for India is not whom to select, but rather whom to leave out, and it’s a position the think-tank will not be too disappointed at being in. India have an optional nets session at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on Saturday to better acquaint themselves with the conditions. It’s not quite chalk and cheese, but the conditions served up on the ground built on temple land some 150km away, in Dambulla, are a far cry from what you can expect here. The pitch at the Premadasa, a ground built on swamp land, had a generous covering of grass on it, but you can be sure none of this will be left unshaved when the time comes to bowl the first ball. Traditionally, the pitch begins as low and slow and these characteristics get exaggerated further as the game wears on.
What this means is that the spinners will have much more say in the game, especially in the second half, while at the same time disallowing the quick men the bite they enjoyed at Dambulla. There is always the concern that the white ball might suddenly behave in strange fashion under lights, either swinging or seaming exaggeratedly, but those are freak occurrences in what is usually a tough grind for bowlers and batsmen alike.
Once the Indians have got a good grasp of the conditions, they will contemplate the composition of the team they would like to put on the park. The first good news was the return to active duty of Gautam Gambhir, who missed the last game with a stiff neck. India played six batsmen and five bowlers in the last match because Gambhir’s injury left them with no options, but it remains to be seen whether they continue with this set-up, or go for the extra batsman, given the struggles against the spin twins.
Should the team play seven-four, with Pragyan Ojha coming into the mix to partner Harbhajan Singh, India will have to decide on one of Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar.
With seven batsman playing, Pathan’s batting becomes less significant and he has barely been a force with the ball since the Asia Cup; certainly nowhere near as penetrative as Munaf or Praveen in the first two matches. Choosing between Munaf and Praveen to partner Zaheer Khan will be a tight call, for both have bowled with heart in this series and in the nets especially, Munaf has troubled all batsmen without exception. If it becomes too close to call and India choose to play both quick men, they might have to leave out Ojha — an option they won’t fancy — and instead rely on the part-time bowling of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma.
Should India decide on a six-five option that won the last game, then Dhoni will be left with an even more difficult decision. Who makes way for Gambhir? There’s little room to drop S. Badrinath, who not only played a clutch role in India’s win, but also showed that Ajantha Mendis could be blunted, if one was not in pursuit of quick runs, but rather worked the ball around.
Few batsman have shown that kind of composure against the mystery spinner this series, and for that alone Dhoni would like to keep Badrinath in the mix. This might mean a spell on the bench for Rohit Sharma, who has struggled the most of all the batsmen, and will necessitate the inclusion of Pathan to bolster the batting. Surely this means that Ojha must then play, for no team can contemplate putting four quick bowlers on the park at the Premadasa.
All in all, history points to seven batsmen and four bowlers, with two spinners in harness, but that said, Dhoni is not averse to springing the odd surprise.