India witnessed one of their most embarrassing defeats in recent times at home – in fact just their seventh on Indian soil in the last decade – by going down by ten wickets in three-and-half days to England in Mumbai on Monday. And what was the reaction from the selectors? A day later, they retained 15 players from the squad that was humiliated at the Wankhede Stadium for the third Test in Kolkata starting December 5.
This despite how India, having asked and received a turning and bouncing track, and then having gained a massive advantage by batting first, failed miserably. Their spin trio of R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh came second to the England pair of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. Their batsmen also did pretty badly, with only Cheteshwar Pujara showing the temperament to face the guile of the English spinners.
In spite of the failings, which were plenty, the new selection panel headed by Sandeep Patil decided to retain the same players for the Kolkata Test. Instead of acknowledging that there are problems, instead of towing the line for inconsistent and non-performers, the selection panel has showed faith in a team that was made to look shambolic in Mumbai. Instead the only indication the public got that the selectors were indeed in something of a stupor was the fact that the BCCI, having announced that that it would name the squad for the two remaining Tests and the two Twenty20 internationals, released a list of 15 only for the next Test. Why haven’t changes been made when the situation demands them?
By retaining 15 players from the squad that lost to England in Mumbai, the selection panel has put India in jeopardy going into the last two Tests.
Harbhajan, who made a comeback to the side after a gap of 14 months, had figures of 2 for 84 in two innings; both his wickets were tailenders. But the figures tell only half the story. The offspinner, in his 99th Test, looked a pale shadow of what he was a few years ago. He continued bowling flat, the length he so often bowls in limited-overs cricket, and stuck to a middle-and-leg line, which mostly leaks runs rather than providing wickets.
So what does his retention indicate? That there are no other suitable replacements in India? That Harbhajan is good enough to hold his place in Kolkata? Or that he has been retained in the side with the idea being to give him a farewell 100th Test on a ground where he demolished the Steve Waugh-led Australia, picking up 13 wickets in the match, including a hat-trick, over a decade ago? Whichever way you look at it, the selectors seem to have compromised on the outcome of the series, which was seen as one of 'revenge' by many including leading Indian players.
Sachin Tendulkar, the run machine of the Indian cricket, has been visibly uncomfortable against both fast men and spinners in his last few Tests, getting bowled and lbw to deliveries which he would send to the boundary with ease in his heydays. He has failed to reach 30 in his last six Test innings, and four of his five dismissals have been bowled. Yet despite a string of low scores and mediocre batting, why have the selectors still persisted with a 39-year-old veteran whose reflexes have gone down? Again, it appears a compromise.
It's difficult to change an entire squad in the middle of a series, and one defeat does not call for wholesale changes. But at the least the selectors needed to accept that there are problems within Indian cricket, needed to show that between the five of them, and with inputs from the team staff, they were capable of showing a little reaction. Not reacting at all has only highlighted an apparent stubbornness within Indian cricket to acknowledge glaring deficiencies.
Whether the selectors have spoken to Harbhajan or Tendulkar or Gautam Gambhir, who despite making a 65 - the highest in India's second innings - didn't evoke much confidence while facing England's seamers outside his off stump, or Yuvraj Singh, whose frailties against quality spin was once again exposed, or Zaheer Khan, who like Harbhajan have already passed his prime, is not known. But it is highly unlikely, keeping with tradition and rhetoric.
Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay, who are much more agile than most of the Indian fielders on the field for the first two Tests, have been overlooked consistently, despite scoring heavily in domestic cricket. Are the selectors trying to make more Subramaniam Badrinaths and Manoj Tiwarys, who have been selected numerous times but didn't get their deserved chances?
There are questions aplenty, and the selectors would be doing a favour to millions of Indian cricket fans by answering at least some of them. Alas, for the time being, they have put India in jeopardy going into the last two Tests of what was a much-awaited series.