Dileep Premachandran: India searching for answers after MS Dhoni's plan backfires

The Indian Angle

Mumbai

For much of the past decade, during which India have lost just seven home Tests, picking a squad was a formality. Now, after a 10-wicket thrashing inside just 10 sessions at the Wankhede Stadium, a new selection panel may be forced to make some tough calls.

It's not that India have not lost heavily at home before in that time. South Africa won by an innings at Ahmedabad in 2008, after the groundsman left a generous smattering of grass on the surface for Dale Steyn and friends. At Nagpur in 2010, Steyn's breathtaking spell of 7 for 51 inspired another South African win.

This, however, was a heist on a pitch supposedly prepared to exploit Indian strengths and English weaknesses. India's spin trio – Harbhajan Singh was welcomed back after more than a year out of the Test XI – took 9 for 420. Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann took 19 for 323.

Despite the defeat, MS Dhoni, the India captain, asserted that these were the kind of pitches he preferred to play on at home. "I think this was a very good wicket," said Dhoni. "In India or in the subcontinent, matches should happen on these kind of wickets because it takes the toss out of the equation. The ball was turning from the first day itself so both teams have an equal chance, reducing the impact of the toss. Whichever team plays better cricket wins the game."

Not everyone will see it that way. Post-match discussion in the media and among fans has focused on a golden opportunity "squandered", and of the need for harsh measures to prevent the series slipping away.

What is not clear is what the critics expect the selectors to do. Zaheer Khan has taken six wickets in four home Tests this season at 49.66 apiece. But with Umesh Yadav likely to miss the rest of the year with a back problem, it is hard to see how he can be jettisoned. Ishant Sharma averages 43 with the ball in Tests over the past two years, while Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, whose controlled outswing with the seam bolt upright once so impressed Allan Donald, has faded from view.

Irfan Pathan is an option only when there is a chance that the ball may swing, while Praveen Kumar, who bowled with great skill in England last year, seems to have suffered the same fate as Tim Bresnan after an elbow injury.

The spin larder is just as bare. Harbhajan may well be left out at Eden Gardens, despite 46 wickets at 21.76 in his seven Tests there. But chances are that a second seamer will replace him. Piyush Chawla is the leg-spinner whose googly is more effective than the stock ball, while Amit Mishra is too slow through the air to trouble elite batsmen. Future hopes like Harmeet Singh, a star of the Under-19 World Cup-winning side, are considered too callow for Test recognition.

Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag have both managed one substantial innings to lessen scrutiny at the top of the order, but Cheteshwar Pujara aside, there has been no consistency. Virat Kohli has appeared too wound up, perhaps acutely conscious of how reliant the team now is on his runs. As for Sachin Tendulkar, which selector will be brave enough to ask him to do what Viv Richards did, and drop down to No 5?

"You don't chop and change players on the basis of one or two Tests," said Dhoni. "We have to give them a fair run. Otherwise, you will keep changing players every game. It is always good to give players a fair amount of games together so they are also comfortable and not thinking of selection."

Now, however, he and the rest of the management need to start thinking beyond comfort zones.

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India

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