Ishant Sharma will have to shepherd rookies
A quixotic mix of fate and form has ensured that India will go into the first Test against the West Indies with a bowling attack that, on paper, looks raw with Ishant Sharma emerging as the unit's leader and debutant R. Ashwin expected to lend it a cerebral touch.
Earlier mentors Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh have been laid low by injury and a poor-yield respectively and that means Ishant (23) will be the seniormost, if not by age at least through experience at the highest level as his 38 Tests and 123 wickets indicate.
Strangely the bowling transition was supposed to happen much later though Anil Kumble's retirement in 2008 left a void, too big to fill. Change was actually foreseen in the echelons of batting with Sourav Ganguly's swansong three years ago being the gentle trigger of gradual farewells, profuse applause and wet eyes as three of his peers — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman — were also expected to weigh their options. Fortunately for India, the trio gained a tremendous second wind and the twilight saga can wait.
Meanwhile, Zaheer (33) and Harbhajan (31), expected to strengthen and stretch the bowling armoury to its full potential, have faded out briefly, though the forthcoming tour of Australia might trigger a change in their fortunes. The left-arm seamer is racing against time to recover from an ankle surgery while the off-spinner returns to the Ranji Trophy in a bid to prove that the old fires are still burning.
Fits and starts
Ishant, after his breath-taking spell against Ricky Ponting in 2008, has often fired in fits and starts, though he seems at peace now and is slowly living up to the potential he revealed during that heady phase at Perth. He will now have to shepherd rookies Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, but truly there is more pressure on Ashwin as he steps into Harbhajan's shoes for the time being.
Often lost in the descriptions about his niggardly deliveries in One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 cricket is that critical detail about 134 first-class wickets for Tamil Nadu and South Zone. It is an anomaly that Ashwin also pointed out during the recent tour of England when he told a British scribe, “I have done well in first-class cricket but it is just that people noticed me through the Indian Premier League,” Ashwin said.
Though a Test debut at the Ferozeshah Kotla beckons, Ashwin, until recently, was aware of plying his wares in Harbhajan's shadow.
“Would you play two off-spinners (in Tests)? I wouldn't,” he shot back at Cardiff when queried about his absence in Tests. The spotlight though is now firmly on Ashwin while his spin-compatriots range from the relatively better-experienced Pragyan Ojha (11 Tests, 42 wickets) to rookie Rahul Sharma (10 first-class games), who has churned up a debate about the selectors' ‘foresight' or ‘gamble' with regard to his entry into the Indian Test squad.
Ashwin is known to have a cool head and he needs to stick to that trait when the match against the West Indies commences here on Sunday.
The West Indies coach Ottis Gibson instead of playing psychological games, warmly praised Ashwin's attributes. “Somebody like Harbhajan has taken a lot of wickets and he has won games and you might look at that (his absence) as a negative, but Ashwin has been outstanding in one-day cricket. When a player makes his debut, people tend to think ‘oh he may not be ready' but obviously the selectors believe that he is ready and that makes him very dangerous.
“He is a quality bowler and he is somebody we need to give a lot of attention to,” Gibson said.
The West Indies may no longer be the force it was during the Clive Lloyd-Vivian Richards era but if Ishant and company can do well against the team, it will still do a world of good to their confidence and also prove to the fans and selectors that the Indian bowling cupboard is not empty.