New Delhi: India’s selectors were due to announce the replacement for an injured Praveen Kumar in the Test squad to tour Australia sometime after 8pm on Tuesday night in Ahmedabad, during the third ODI against West Indies. Their official announcement came via an email at 10:43pm.
What took them so long isn’t certain, but two theories can be surmised: one, that they were waiting to see if Karnataka fast bowler Abhimanyu Mithun – one of three candidates – could carry India to a series-clinching win with the bat and two, that there are forces on the selection panel that still aren’t convinced of Irfan Pathan’s wicket-taking abilities. Either way, the decision came as a surprise and will be the talking point for some time.
Earlier in the evening, Mithun had sent down sent down seven overs for 47 runs and one wicket. Twenty-three of those runs came in one over, the 49th of West Indies’ innings, as Darren Sammy larruped a pair of fours and sixes to get his team to 240 with six balls to go. This was Mithun’s first ODI appearance since August 2010, and by the end of the first innings he had career figures of one wicket from three games at an average of 134.00. That wicket had come in the 14th over of this match, Danza Hyatt edged a Mithun delivery to the wicketkeeper.
Under lights, with India attempting to snatch another thriller, Mithun slugged a couple sixes before he was last out for 23 off 16 balls. Shortly after that, came the BCCI’s verdict on Praveen’s replacement and the changes for the final two ODIs against West Indies.
Prima facie, we can discern that Mithun got the nod for the Australia tour because he is faster than Irfan and his fellow Karnataka pacer Vinay Kumar. But he was not a bowler in form, having taken just ten wickets in three Ranji Trophy matches this season. He is the least experienced of the three, in terms of first-class experience, but has played four more Tests than Vinay and has age on his side. With Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Ishant Sharma, Mithun is the fourth bowler capable of bowling quick in Australia on hard and bouncy pitches. But is that what India need?
As a like-for-like replacement for Praveen, Irfan would have been the appropriate candidate: medium-pace, with a fair amount of swing. He would have also been a viable option in the likelihood of Zaheer Khan – named as the 17th member pending his match fitness - not lasting the tour. He has toured Australia for two Test tours and has 100 Test wickets to his credit. He was the highest wicket-taker in the Elite Devision of the Ranji Trophy with 21 wickets at an average of 14 from four matches, with three consecutive five-wicket hauls. But this was not enough to earn him a Test recall.
Instead, Irfan, 27, has been added to India’s ODI squad as a replacement for Yadav who will depart with fellow Test players on Thursday for Australia. He has not played for India in over two years but, in his own words, is determined to give it his best as playing for the country means "everything" to him. The men who matter will have us believe that the delay in naming Praveen’s replacement had nothing do with Mithun’s performance in the Ahmedabad ODI, but considering Irfan’s extended ouster from the team, it appears he has not done enough to convince certain selectors of his worth. That there are individuals in the team and selection panel who aren’t his greatest fans is known, and it remains to be seen if the decision to name him in the ODI squad is just actually an opportunity to test him or just a façade to feign recognition for a strong start to the Ranji season.
In selecting Mithun - who has not played since the Barbados Test of July last year - the selectors have apparently indicated an eye on the future instead of a return to the past, though the merits of this decision are sure to be debated this week and even once the tour gets going. Clearly, current form has not made up the criteria for his selection to Australia. Even if he does not add to his four Test caps in Australia, for Mithun’s sake let’s hope the selectors have long-term plans for him to be a Test bowler.
In the BCCI’s long list of puzzling selection choices, this latest one comes as an odd sort of decision.