When India last toured England in 2011, their campaign took a major blow in the first session of the series itself when Zaheer Khan limped off the field at Lord’s holding his hamstring. Things only got worse from that point, eventually ending in a 4-0 whitewash.
The veteran left-arm seamer and his hamstring will be up for stringent scrutiny once more on Wednesday as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) senior selection committee sit to pick the squad for the upcoming Test tour to England, which starts in the last week of June. The selectors are also expected to announce the team for the three-match ODI series in Bangladesh that will take place next month prior to the English sojourn.
While a fit Zaheer is an invaluable asset, his fragile body as always is sure to provide Sandeep Patil & Co with a major headache, especially in the wake of him missing a major chunk of the ongoing IPL with a hamstring pull.
For starters, you can’t help but wonder why the selectors are so keen on picking the squad, which is expected to be a 17-member party, for a tour that is still a good month away. The main reason for this haste, according to a BCCI official, is the prevailing rigid visa process for traveling to the United Kingdom. And the board decided that it was prudent to pick the team at this stage to avoid any last-minute visa issues.
“UK visas take a lot of time now as the applicant has to personally go for their finger test. It is overall a long process. In the past, we had situations where players arrived late in England due to delays with their visa. And plus we would have had some of the touring party in Bangladesh. Hence, we thought it was better to pick the squad early,” the official told The Indian Express.
But the prudence entails that the selectors will be naming the squad with their fingers crossed in terms of the fitness of a number of their players, and not just Zaheer. A lot can after all go wrong in a month’s time. A Zaheer-led pace attack did struggle to make inroads on India’s previous two foreign tours with the team suffering defeats in both South Africa and New Zealand. And it’ll be interesting to see whether Patil and his colleagues continue to repose their faith on the 35-year-old spearhead. The likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Varun Aaron have staked their claims with impressive showings, while Mohammad Shami was clearly India’s best bowler on both southern hemisphere trips. Then there is the pairing of Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma, who not long back led the bowling attack with the new-ball.
The other concern for the selectors will be the slot of the third opener. While for now, Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay do seem to have established themselves at the top of the order, the door might well open again for the discarded Gautam Gambhir, according to a selector.
“Dhawan started to cope with swing and seam towards the back end of the New Zealand tour. Vijay also looked pretty assured, especially in South Africa, though he failed to convert his starts in most cases. But they’re good young prospects for India,” he said.
Having a reserve opener will act as a safety net for the Indians, ensuring that they don’t have to go with a middle-order batsman as a stopgap choice at the top like they did with Rahul Dravid three years ago. In any case, the incumbent No.3 Cheteshwar Pujara might well be pushed into that role in the case of an emergency.
Ravichandran Ashwin’s figures, away from the sub-continent-nine wickets for 673 runs in four matches-don’t make for happy reading. The off-spinner even ended up losing his place in the Test team after a wicket-less stint at Johannesburg last winter with Ravindra Jadeja replacing him in Durban as the first-choice spinner. But he is still expected to hang on to his place in the squad, ahead of Harbhajan Singh.
Meanwhile, the team for the Bangladesh series is expected to wear a fresh look with Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli in line to be rested. Rohit Sharma is the leading contender to be named captain, while the likes of Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa and Naman Ojha are likely to earn recalls to the ODI squad.
(Inputs from Shamik Chakrabarty)