Under-performing Gautam Gambhir is not selected, writes Dileep Premachandran, but his replacements do not inspire confidence for India in the first two of four Tests against Australia.
India batsman Gautam Gambhir pays price for poor cricket performance
Sporting fame can be a fickle beast.
If he didn't know that before, Gautam Gambhir knows it now. Three years ago, he was enjoying a halcyon period that had some suggesting that he'd soon join the ranks of the game's elite. Now, four and a half years after he cemented his place in the side, he has been cut adrift, punishment for a fallow run that has gone on too long.
Gambhir and Virender Sehwag formed by far the most prolific opening partnership in India's cricket history. In the 87 innings that they opened together, they added 4,412 runs at 52.52. There were 11 century stands. Among pairs currently playing the game, only Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have scored more runs together.
They established themselves as a partnership on the tour of Sri Lanka in 2008. Ajantha Mendis's wiles won Sri Lanka the series, and as those around them faltered, the openers were the only batsmen to emerge from the loss with credit.
In 24 Tests from the start of that series, Gambhir scored 2,542 runs at 60.52, with eight centuries. At one stage, he became only the fourth batsman in the game's annals to reel off hundreds in five consecutive Tests. The fifth of those centuries came at Chittagong in January 2010. He has not scored another since.
The decline began after the 2011 World Cup, where his wonderful 97 played a huge part in India chasing down a daunting target in the final. In 16 Tests spread over two years, Gambhir managed just 787 runs at 28.10. A tally of five half-centuries looked even worse because Sehwag's form dipped at the same time.
In the recent series against England, Gambhir got starts in five of six innings. His highest score was 65. That he kept getting dismissed in similar fashion – usually playing with an angled bat – might also have gone against him when the selectors met to pick the squad.
There was a time when Gambhir was seen as the successor to Rahul Dravid as Indian cricket's marathon man. At Napier in 2009, he batted 643 minutes for 137, as India staved off what appeared to be certain defeat. It was the pivotal innings in a series that they won 1-0, a first success in New Zealand in 41 years.
In Cape Town in early 2011, he batted 589 minutes for 93 and 64, in a drawn series that reinforced India's position at the top of the Test rankings. Since then, he has not even managed to bat through two full sessions.
Those chosen in Gambhir's place do not inspire great confidence either. Murali Vijay scored 266 and 116 in this season's two Irani Cup matches, but had a dismal Ranji Trophy season with Tamil Nadu. Shikhar Dhawan had a much better one with Delhi, but his technique will need to be a lot tighter when faced with bowlers of the quality of Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson.
The Irani Cup game that saw Rest of India beat Mumbai would have served as an ideal selection trial for some of the bowlers. Sadly, it was not used as such. Ashok Dinda and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have both been picked in the Test squad after being ignored for the Irani Cup. Neither has played a first-class game since December.
Ishant Sharma, who will lead the pace attack, has declared himself fit after a recurrence of the ankle problem that required surgery last year. Ishant's best home series was against Australia in 2008, but he has seldom lived up to the promise he showed that year. With Dinda largely overlooked for the recent one-day series against England, Bhuvneshwar appears favourite to share the new ball with him.
Confused selection is the theme in the spin department as well. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha retain their places despite being distinctly second-best to Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, and Harbhajan Singh earns a recall despite taking just 16 wickets at 32 in five Ranji Trophy games for Punjab.
Piyush Chawla, who took four wickets on his return to the side against England, finds himself on the outer yet again, while Ravindra Jadeja keeps his place. In a line-up that has failed repeatedly in recent times, the No 6 position is absolutely pivotal. Since Sourav Ganguly's retirement after the 2008 series against Australia – VVS Laxman moved up a place to No 5 after that –India have struggled to find someone capable of being the bridge between the top order and the tail.
Jadeja showed glimpses of batting ability in the one-day games against England, but if it came down to choosing between him and Ajinkya Rahane in a specialist-batting role, you would not have to think too hard. Rahane, after more than a year on the bench, deserves his chance.
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