When good people do unexpected things,you search for reasons why they could be right before condemning their choices. And it was with that objective that I sat down to look at the Test team to South Africa. A selection committee that has done a wonderful job so far has picked a side that I hope perplexes more people than just me.
For a start,seventeen players for two Tests? Ideally,you look at the different skills you need in the playing eleven and pick an option for each should there be a last minute injury. Unless the pitches South Africa offer India are going to be drastically different,and that has as much chance as India giving them a Durban lookalike at home,you would play two openers,four other batsmen,a wicket keeper,a spinner and three seamers. So,on the outside you need sixteen players. But I suspect the selectors have broken down those categories and found themselves in a dilemma over the choice of spinners. Hence this unusual selection.
In South Africa,you are unlikely to play both Zaheer Khan and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar; you cant have two swing bowlers largely on the friendly side of 130 kmph. That means two quicker bowlers,most likely Mohd Shami and Umesh Yadav. And Ishant Sharma as cover for one of them. That is five bowlers already. Ravichandran Ashwin picks himself and Pragyan Ojha cant be dropped immediately after figures of 10-89. But then there is this theory that you could play five bowlers in South Africa. Neither of the five seamers bats and Ojha doesnt either,so the only way to do that is to pick Ravindra Jadeja and hope that he fits in with Dhoni and Ashwin in some permutation at numbers 6,7 and 8. So that base had to be covered. That is eight bowlers already.
Given Dhonis workload,it is fair to pick a second wicket keeper,and Wriddhiman Saha has done well enough to get that spot. So,with ten players ostensibly needed,it leaves little room for reserve batsmen. That is where this selection becomes a little difficult to fathom.
When India travel overseas,the most important aspect is the new ball; bowling it and facing it. India have picked two openers,neither of whom has really been tested overseas. It is fair to assume that Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan will get both Tests,but if one of them breaks a finger,for example,who opens the batting for India? On the assumption that Ajinkya Rahane will finally get an extended run in the middle order (the selectors have made it clear that is where they seem him batting),and Ambati Rayudu is the back up batsman there,a hole materialises at the top of the order.
I suspect because this is a short tour,Cheteshwar Pujara is the fall-back option,and while that is not wrong in itself,it has to be an emergency option not part of a plan. People like to play in their positions and will have earned the right to do so. Rahul Dravid didnt enjoy opening the batting at all and if Pujara did,he might have done it more often. And that is why it was better to err,if at all,on the side of an extra opener. It is easier for an opener to drop down the order than it is for someone else to go in first. The selectors could argue it is too early to look at an Unmukt Chand or a Jiwanjot Singh,too late to look at Wasim Jaffer and too difficult to look at Abhinav Mukund for now. But Gautam Gambhir? He could look at this team and think you need to do far lesser as a quick bowler than as an opener to make a come back.
I also fear for the message sent out to Ishant Sharma. You could translate his selection as a show of faith but it could also been seen as misplaced belief and a signal that you dont have to do too much to return. That can actually be harmful to him for the hurt of being left out has been proven to be a motivator for many. In trying to show faith we have to be careful not to pamper people,for,in doing so,we actually do them disservice.
I suspect,and I hope I am wrong,that this is a team where the national selectors have left the job of selection to those on tour. It doesnt quite have the clear direction that has marked so much of the tenure of this group of selectors. Let us just say,this is a selection that needs an explanation to be better understood.