India's strength has always been spin, whether at home or away. There can be no doubting that. And yet there seems to be a shift in power in recent times. With quality spin bowlers being few and far between, India have been forced to turn to their medium-pacers for wickets. Javagal Srinath has led the offensive, with Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar supporting him well. And then came the tour of South Africa where, in conditions that helped seam and swing bowling, India's pace battery, with the exception of Srinath, failed miserably.
Nehra was in and out of the side with injury and never looked near his best. Scalping just two wickets in the sole Test that he played, Nehra made way for Agarkar. The Mumbai seamer looked sharp at times, generating good pace and bounce. As is often the case with Agarkar. however, the wickets never quite materialised. Like Nehra, Agarkar too managed just a couple of wickets. Zaheer Khan was one step worse, going wicketless in the only Test that he played.
With the three support pacemen faring so badly, the selectors had no choice but to drop them. Having made the decision to do so, the five wise men needed to quickly spot replacements. The first step in that process was initiated before the series against England began, with prospective medium-pacers being picked to play in the tour matches. Sanjay Bangar bowled a good line and length in his five-wicket haul against the visitors. Iqbal Siddiqui managed four English wickets, and Tinu Yohannan did just enough to show the selectors that he had potential.
With the first Test being played at Mohali, where there is always some help in the conditions for the fast men, the selectors had a great chance to blood three uncapped players in Bangar, Yohannan and Siddiqui. In that view, it must be said that the selectors got it just right on the count of the three rookie medium-pacers.
It has now become ridiculously easy to play a Test match for India. The pool of players on display has been diluted greatly in recent times. One can only look back at the number of stalwarts who toiled in Ranji cricket for years and yet never got a decent break at the highest level; the names of Padmakar Shivalkar and VV Kumar spring to mind. And yet today, just one good performance in domestic cricket seems enough to propel cricketers to the highest level.
Take the case of Tinu Yohannan. One does not want to discourage the young speedster from Kerala, but there are some facts that you simply cannot get away from. In his fledgling career so far, he has played just eight first-class matches, picking up 24 wickets in the process. He boasts just one five-wicket haul and yet is now considered good enough to play for India.
The case of Siddiqui is slightly different. After 10 long seasons in the domestic circuit, the selectors have suddenly seen something in the Maharashtra medium-pacer. In 76 first-class matches, Siddiqui has returned 230 wickets at an average of just over 35. Again, this is hardly the kind of statistic that inspires selection for a Test team.
If any of the three selected medium-pacers deserves his place in the side, it is Bangar, but even that must be taken with a pinch of salt. Not particularly quick, Bangar's forte is his line and length. Keeping the ball well up on wickets that have almost nothing in them for the fast bowler, he is able to swing the ball just enough to induce an edge. Bangar may have made a good foil for an attacking fast bowler. But he surely cannot be expected to play the role of lead bowler.
In short, there was no way that the Indian selectors should have thrown three uncapped medium-pacers into the deep end. It was a mistake, but fortunately may not be one that the team regrets too much.
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