Gambhir’s exclusion justified but Jaffer gets a raw deal again

By Biswajit Jha | Updated: Feb 18, 2013, 09:47 AM IST

Biswajit Jha

Gautam Gambhir, once hailed by his opening partner Virender Sehwag as the best Test opener India has produced after Sunil Gavaskar, has finally been dropped from the Indian Test side for India’s home series against Australia. It has been more than three years since the Delhi opener got his last Test hundred. He struggled terribly in England and Australia against quality attacks and in tough batting conditions.

Many thought he would be among the runs once he would start playing on home soil. That too did not happen and his poor form continued. And after the debacle against England in December last year, he had exhausted all his options. Gambhir knows it all and that’s why he tweeted that he needed no sympathy. He would rather work hard and come back stronger.

Knowing Gambhir and his brand of cricket, he would definitely do what he has promised. Probably, he too understands that he needed the axe so that he can go back and work on his techniques away from the Indian team and come back much stronger. No one doubts his temperament. It’s his technique against the pacemen which has brought about his downfall.

Gambhir’s sacking was the biggest decision when the Indian selectors declared their 15-member team which would take on Australia in a four-Test series starting this month. Virender Sehwag, who has also not been in the best of forms for the past two years, has somehow saved his place, courtesy a fine century against England in the first Test at Ahmedabad. But with India set to tour South Africa later this year, his performance against the Kangaroos in the upcoming series will be closely monitored as it’s the opening duo which has been the biggest reason for India’s dismal show in the last one and a half years at home and away series.

A new middle-order with the likes of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara has begun to blossom in Tests post Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman’s retirement, but getting good openers is the real challenge for India’s selectors. If Gambhir’s sacking is a good step, his replacement, Murali Vijay, is a disappointing one. Vijay, who has had a horrible Ranji season, got the nod ahead of Mumbai’s in-form opener Wasim Jaffer. In the recently concluded Irani Cup match, Jaffer played two quality knocks against a good attack comprising of Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh, S Sreesanth and Ishwar Pandey, the highest wicket-taker of the Ranji season, and looked head and shoulder above the other openers.

At 34 Jaffer is not getting any younger but he looked the best opener in India. Elegant Jaffer, who has the experience of playing 31 Tests and has two double hundreds to his name, could have been a sane choice to open the innings especially in South Africa where one needs to have a good technique to counter the world’s best pace attack – Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and ageless Jacques Kallis. His vulnerability against the outside-the-off-stump deliveries cost him his place in the team to Gautam Gambhir in 2008. But Jaffer has seemed to have overcome that shortcoming and emerged as a much stronger Test opener and definitely has three to four years of cricket left in him.

When you compare Jaffer with 28-year-old Vijay, who has also tasted Test cricket, the former looks far better. Vijay looked to be a very good young player when he started three years back in the home series against Australia. His technique, timing, grace and his composure while playing backfoot shots drew quite some praise from the cricket critics. In a settled batting order Vijay found it hard to accommodate initially but when he got his chances, especially in South Africa and the West Indies, he looked to be completely out of sorts. Vijay the Test batsman now looks a shadow of his own self of three years back. Some blame it on the IPL; some blame it on his arrogance. But whatever the reason, he is no match for Jaffer. The only reason seems to be that Jaffer does not belong to the city from where current BCCI president hails.

Apart from this selection, selectors went ahead along expected lines. Shikhar Dhawan, the reserve opener, is in good form and deserves a look-in for the Tests. Mumbai batsman Ajinkya Rahane and Saurashtra allrounder Ravindra Jadeja retained their places in the team that played the last Test against England. If Dhoni wants to go with an extra spinner then Jadeja would feature in the team. Otherwise, Rahane would make his Test debut and bat at number 6.

With Umesh Yadav and Zaheer Khan yet to recover fully from their injuries, the pace department will be spearheaded by Ishant Sharma, who looked to have got his rhythm back in the ODI series against Pakistan and England. Uttar Pradesh pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who impressed one and all with his swing and seam bowling in ODIs, is a new face in the team while Bengal pacer Ashoke Dinda was slotted in as the third pacer. One may say that his Bengal teammate and new ball partner Shami Ahmed could have been a better choice. But since Dinda was carrying the drinks for the team in the last series, he should get a look in before him. Shami will have to wait a bit but there is no doubt that he is a good prospect and his time will come soon. Maverick S Sreesanth also looked good in patches in the Irani match but he needs to play some more domestic matches to get into the team. His coming to action again is an encouraging sign for the Indian pace attack.

With most of the highest wicket-takers in the Ranji Trophy being the pacers, selecting a pace bowling unit was never a worry for the five-wise men. Surprisingly, it’s our spin bowling unit which looks completely bare. And that’s why off-spinner Harbhajan Singh got another chance despite doing nothing spectacular after being dropped from the last Test against England for his poor performances. Since another off-spinner in the team R Ashwin has been struggling to take wickets and not a single tweaker has really staked his claim in the Indian Test team, Harbhajan was the only option the selectors had. Only time will tell whether Harbhajan can revive his career once again against the Aussies as he did in 2001.