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Sunday, July 25, 2021

India tour of Australia: Survival of the fittest

Selectors refuse to take punt on fitness doubts despite large squads for Australia tour

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: October 27, 2020 5:32:49 pm
India vs Australia: Survival of the fittestVirat Kohli with teammates Jasprit Bumrah and Cheteshwar Pujara. (File)

Ishant Sharma, three shy of a century of Test matches, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rohit Sharma were the notable exclusions from the Indian Test squad to Australia. While Hardik, who is not fit enough to bowl and couldn’t bargain a spot with his batting skills alone, and Bhuvneshwar, who sustained a thigh injury, are entirely out of contention, BCCI will monitor the injuries of Ishant and Rohit. The latter has pulled a hamstring while Ishant has a muscle torn near the ribs. They were excluded from the list due to the protocol that injured players can’t be named.

Crippling as their absence might seem from a skills-perspective, India could benefit without the injury-prone Bhuvneshwar and Ishant in what could be a long and draining tour.

The first Test, scheduled to begin on December 7, is still nearly a month-and-a-half away, perhaps adequate time for Ishant to recover in time for the series. But the last eventuality the team management would want is a repeat of the episode in New Zealand. A month before the series, Ishant picked an ankle injury during the Ranji Trophy. Initially doubtful for the series, he recovered in miraculous time and reached just in time. He straightaway featured in the first Test, showed little discomfort and grabbed five wickets. But a day before the second Test, his injury aggravated, forcing him to miss the match and disrupt India’s plans. Consequently, India were forced to include an off-colour Umesh Yadav than handing out a maiden Test cap to Navdeep Saini.

Hence, carrying a semi-fit Ishant entails considerable risk, more so in these times of bio-bubbles and quarantines which make joining the team at a later date impractical. There have been several incidents in the past of Indian fast bowlers, rushed to fitness before a series, breaking down in the middle of it. Former talisman Zaheer Khan had wilted multiple times during a series. So have Ishant and Bhuvneshwar. The former had fully or partially missed at least one Test on every overseas tour, the West Indies trip aside, in the last three years. In South Africa, he fell ill on the morning of the first Test. In England, he hobbled off after bowling just an over on the fourth day of the fifth Test. Later in Australia, he missed the fourth Test due to discomfort in his ribs, before the ankle injury flared up in Christchurch. Moreover, he has played just one T20 and a Test match this year, which means he is utterly short of match practice.

It’s an altogether different case with Bhuvneshwar, who has spent an infinite amount of time suffering, or recovering from, injury during his career. Once the most promising of India’s fast-bowling stock, and maturing with every outing, his career has been rudely truncated by injuries. Thigh, groin, hip, hamstring, shoulder, there are few parts of his body unaffected by injuries. As a result, he has not featured in a Test, or even a first-class game, since the Johannesburg match in 2018. His Test career seems destined to remain unfulfilled despite an average of 26 in 21 Tests.

In this background, even if he were completely fit, he would have been an unlikely candidate for the tour. Had the trip been to England or New Zealand, where his swing bowling would have been lethal, he would have been at least considered. But on the hard and bouncy surfaces of Australia, where one needs hit-the-deck merchants with durable constitutions, Bhuvneshwar would have been out of place. He had increased his pace and added other skills to be all-surface compatible, but it’s foolish to pick someone who has not bowled with the red ball in nearly three years.

It’s unfortunate for Rohit too, as the injury has coincided with the most decisive phase of his Test career, just when he had remodelled himself into an opener and cracked the consistency code. Even if he regains full fitness, to pick him or not will be a big call for the selectors.

Hours after not being named in the squads and a BCCI statement that Rohit’s fitness will be monitored, Mumbai Indians tweeted a photograph of him walking out to bat in the nets.

What could hurt India the most would be the absence of Hardik. He is a quality all-rounder that India had unearthed after a long time, but if he can’t bowl, he is half the player. So the message this time around from the selectors is loud and clear: Selection of the fittest.

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