x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Surprise selection for South Africa tour

Most of India's players are automatic picks, but how little-known Yadav pips Mithun in the pace attack against South Africa beats me.

Sreesanth, left, and Ishant must keep themselves fit.
Sreesanth, left, and Ishant must keep themselves fit.

In Norse mythology, Valhalla is where warriors go to die. For fast bowlers, it is Sri Lankan pitches that resemble the hall in Asgard.

If you want to punish one, do not drop him from the team. Send him on a tour of the island instead. Back in 2006, when Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara added 624 at the Sinhalese Sports Club, South Africa's bowling line-up included Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini, hardly a pair of friendly medium pacers.

In July, with Zaheer Khan out injured, Abhimanyu Mithun made his debut in Sri Lanka. Having made a name for himself with a 47-wicket haul in the previous Ranji Trophy season, where Karnataka reached the final after a long absence, it was his task to share the new ball with Ishant Sharma and confront a batting line-up renowned for mastery in their own conditions.

Mithun bowled some lively spells on some of the most placid surfaces in the game, finishing the three Tests with an unflattering six wickets at an average of 62. In the final Test at the P Sara Oval, he contributed a sprightly 46 with the bat and took the vital wicket of the in-form Thilan Samaraweera as a side missing Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer pulled off a series-levelling victory.

It was understood that he would make way when Zaheer came back for the home Tests against Australia and New Zealand, but he cannot have imagined that he would be jettisoned from the squad altogether. No matter. The combinations chosen for home games are not usually packed with pace bowlers and Mithun must have consoled himself with the thought that he would be recalled when names were jotted down for the tour of South Africa.

Think again. On Saturday evening, the Indian board released a list of 17 names, and two pace bowlers were in as back-up for the established trio of Zaheer, Ishant and Shantakumaran Sreesanth. One was the 19-year-old Jaidev Unadkat, highly rated by Wasim Akram and already with the team as a reserve for the New Zealand series.

The second name was a real wild card, Vidarbha's Umesh Yadav. Playing for a weaker team in the Ranji Trophy's Plate League - the second division - Yadav has taken 53 wickets at an average of 25.71 in 16 games. He caught the eye with his brisk pace during the last Indian Premier League season, but six wickets in seven games for the Delhi Daredevils hardly represented an eye-popping return.

He then went to Zimbabwe and picked up just one wicket in three matches as a weakened Indian side were twice embarrassed by the hosts. Though he occasionally nudged the speed-gun beyond 140kph, his bowling was little more than innocuous. His selection ahead of Mithun and a whole host of others - RP Singh may struggle in India, but relishes South African conditions - is nothing short of perplexing.

India have gone down this obsessed-with-pace blind alley before in South Africa. Vikram Raj Vir Singh was a left-field pick on the last tour in 2006/07. On the second day of a tour game against Rest of South Africa in Potchefstroom, he bowled a superb spell that showcased both genuine pace and hostility. By the next day though, he was struggling to land it on the cut strip.

His radar was just as awry in the two Tests that he played and his profligacy in Durban - he went for 64 from 10 overs in the second innings - played a big part in India losing the plot. Not only was he not in the same pace league as Steyn, but, more importantly, he lacked any semblance of the control required against batsmen comfortable against speed.

Yadav aside, the selection is on expected lines. The top six pick themselves, especially with Gautam Gambhir now having emerged from his lean spell.

In case South Africa successfully exploit Suresh Raina's perceived failings against the short ball, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara will be there to step in.

MS Dhoni, whose fingers these days have more tape than a ballerina's feet, also has back-up in Wriddhiman Saha, the Bengal wicketkeeper with tidy hands and a decent range of strokes.

That India do not foresee spin being a huge factor is apparent as only Harbhajan and Pragyan Ojha have been chosen. The off-spin of Suresh Raina and the all-sorts offered by Sachin Tendulkar could act as fillers, with the team keen not to strain Virender Sehwag's shoulder unduly in the build-up to the World Cup.

Ishant and Sreesanth bowled as well as they have done in a while in the first innings of the ongoing third Test against New Zealand in Nagpur and provided Zaheer recovers in time, India have a pace attack that can again surprise South Africa, as they did at the Wanderers four years ago.

But with the back-up so thin on experience, keeping the three amigos fit will be of paramount importance.

sports@thenational.ae