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The backup spinners were put through their paces in one of the nets during India’s practice session at JSCA International Stadium Complex here on Thursday. Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Pawan Negi had been bowling to Ravindra Jadeja who was trying to hit them square of the wicket. Negi looked to be the odd man out because of his round-arm action, trajectory and pace. He was flatter and faster than the rest, getting minimal turn in the process. Negi, however, had been allowing very little room to Jadeja to free his arms. He also made Rohit Sharma mistime an off drive as the ball skidded off the surface.
Negi is not a classical spinner by any standards. He is a bit-part cricketer who can keep a tight leash on the batsmen and smack the ball as a pinch-hitter. He did it a few times in the last year’s IPL, playing for Chennai Super Kings and making a positive impression on his captain MS Dhoni. The skipper’s inputs were a reason why Negi has suddenly been brought into the Team India fold; for this series, and also for the Asia Cup and World T20. The selections helped him earn a Rs 8.5-crore IPL contract with Delhi Daredevils. Tomorrow, in the second match of the ongoing series against Sri Lanka, the new kid might be thrown in at the deep end as India look to stay alive.
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On match eve, Ravi Shastri was asked about the possibility of playing an extra spinner. “I haven’t seen the pitch yet. But what I see from the outfield is it is pretty dry and there is a lot of sand. What it suggests is that it has not had much of water. We are game to play horses for courses. We have always done that and if the pitch demands that, we will do exactly what you said. If you think it’s going to turn, we have resources. That is the idea of this team, to have resources for all conditions,” said the team director.
Spinners traditionally have done well at this venue. R Ashwin has taken six wickets at 25.00 in two completed ODIs here, while Jadeja has four scalps at 18.75. This time also, the slow bowlers are expected to get some purchase. The JSCA Complex pitch has the required Indian flavour that Dhoni craves. Unlike Pune, it’s brown in colour and will play slower and lower. Negi has been included in the squad to fill the slot of an allrounder specifically in such conditions; when he could be more effective than Hardik Pandya.
“In Indian conditions, if we want to play an extra spinner, then Negi could be used as a spin-bowling allrounder,” Dhoni had said a few days back. The practice pitches offered sharp turn and the captain might be tempted to change the team combination.
Harbhajan is another option that the team management has. The senior off-spinner was bowling beautifully in the nets, teasing Yuvraj with his off-breaks. Harbhajan didn’t get a game in Australia and was overlooked in the first match against Sri Lanka. He brings quality to the table but his inclusion might upset the balance a little. Harbhajan is a decent batsman lower down the order but he can’t be considered as a genuine allrounder. Negi’s strike-rates in the IPL last year and the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 this season – 158.90 and 173.00 respectively – strengthen his case.
This is a must-win contest for the hosts who lost the opening game of this three-match series. The batting meltdown in Pune on a seaming pitch has offered a reality check after the highs Down Under. Three young Sri Lankan fast bowlers – Kasun Rajitha, Dushmantha Chameera and Dasun Shanaka – shared eight wickets between them in that game as Indian innings folded for 101. In Ranchi, however, they have to punch above their weight to be as effective, with little assistance expected from the 22 yards. And the visitors, too, might make odd changes in their playing XI according to conditions.
“(It’s) hard to predict (if the pitch would help the spinners). It could be a good batting track. We can’t predict too far. We just have to go with the conditions,” middle-order batsman Chamara Kapugedera, whose 26-ball 25 was vital to Sri Lanka’s successful chase in Pune, said. “The pitch looks different from the Pune wicket. It looks dry and we have to see tomorrow how it behaves and decide accordingly,” he added.
Veteran opening batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan, who skipped the first match, has joined the team and his arrival might see a reshuffle in the top-order with Niroshan Dickwella going out and skipper Dinesh Chandimal donning the big gloves. Meanwhile, Ashish Nehra didn’t attend India’s practice today, although he came to the ground. A team source, however, clarified that the left-arm seamer followed his own training schedule and spent time at the gym.