Test of skill, temperament

Test of skill, temperament

Despite being the No 1 Test side, India have a lot of issues to address

Test of skill, temperament

Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh will have a significant role to play for India in the Test series against Sri Lanka, beginning at Galle on Sunday. AFP

Rankings conceal as much as they reveal. For now, as they have indeed been for the last seven and a half months, India are ranked the number one Test team; whether they are the best in the business, however, is open to interpretation.

It is hardly Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men’s fault that their golden run hasn’t coincided with away tours to Australia and South Africa, where India have never won a Test series. For 17 years now, they have failed to conquer Sri Lanka too in their own backyard. Consequently, there are several who feel that while India have played well enough in the last few years to ascend the throne, it’s entirely another matter if they can be called the best Test side in the world.

A surfeit of limited-overs cricket in the five and a half months since their last Test outing, against South Africa in Kolkata, has offered very little concrete evidence of what to expect over the next three weeks when India attempt again to beard the Lankan lion in its own den. A majority of the Test middle-order hasn’t played in most of those games, but despite their failures in the warm-up game in Colombo, there is little reason why India will fret over the preparedness of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.

What could loom as the biggest stumbling block to their aspirations of emulating Mohammad Azharuddin’s class of ’93 and ekeing out a series triumph here, though, will be the lack of experience, depth and quality of the bowling component of the Indian wheel. Sample this for the options Dhoni, playing his first Test in Sri Lanka, can summon when ‘Play’ is called at the Galle International stadium on Sunday – pacers Ishant Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun and Munaf Patel, and spinners Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha. For all the mixing and matching before the skipper and the think-tank arrive at the four-man attack comprising two quicks and two spinners, it is unlikely to give Kumar Sangakkara’s formidable batting line-up too many sleepless nights.

Singled out as the only one capable of having a go at his record tally of 792 Test wickets, and counting, by the retiring Muttiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan will again have to lead from the front. His role won’t be restricted to being both the stock and the shock options alone; the off-spinner will necessarily have to rouse his mates and get them to perform above themselves, because unless India are at their incisive best, they will be made to pay a heavy price by a Lankan line-up that grows remarkably in stature and confidence on home tracks.

A succession of unkind cuts culminating in the return home of the maverick S Sreesanth with a knee injury on the first day of practice on this tour is precisely what Dhoni could have done without in his first assignment post marriage. Spearhead Zaheer Khan’s absence through a shoulder injury had already set the team back hugely. With Sreesanth, who marked his Test comeback with the man of the match award against Sri Lanka in Kanpur, too rendered hors de combat, the skipper will now have to make do with the inconsistency of Ishant, the inexperience of Mithun, primed for his Test debut, and the indifference of Munaf, tapering off disappointingly after a promising debut against England four seasons back.

It’s a far cry from the days when India’s pace bowling appeared in excellent health. Apart from the cutting edge of Zaheer, Sreesanth and Munaf, there was proven potential in the shape of Ishant, Rudra Pratap Singh and Irfan Pathan, and the promise provided by the likes of Dhawal Kulkarni, Mithun, R Vinay Kumar and Ashok Dinda, among others. Now, it’s around promise and hope, as much as anything else, that India’s seam bowling revolves, and that’s hardly an ideal scenario going into an arduous, demanding Test series.