Badrinath, Raina, Kohli Front-Runners For SA Series
Injuries to key middle order batsmen Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman and Yuvraj Singh ahead of the tough Test rubber against South Africa has opened the door for younger aspirants to claim places in the Indian squad for the home series to be picked in Mumbai on Thursday.
Dravid and Yurvaj Singh, who were injured in the course of the second Test now in progress in Mirpur against hosts Bangladesh, are virtually out of the opening match against South Africa commencing on February 6 at Nagpur.
There's also a question mark over Laxman's availability after he missed the Mirpur game due to a finger injury and suddenly the middle order shows a huge void that the selectors would find hard to fill.
The front runners for taking up the slots that would become vacant due to the likely absence of these main batsmen are Subramaniam Badrinath, who has been with the team in home ties without getting a look-in, one-day specialists Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, and young talent Manish Pandey of Karnataka.
Right-handed Badrinath, the Tamil Nadu and South Zone captain who is on the wrong side of the 20s in age, has vast experience in first class cricket and has scored over 5,000 runs in domestic cricket and is the most steady of the quartet.
Raina, Sharma and Kohli have shown what they are capable of in the limited-over games with their bold strokes and have recently displayed maturity to play the longer version of the game in domestic cricket.
Pandey, in the early 20s like Sharma and Kolhi, has suddenly jumped into the fray after his splendid display for his state team Karnataka in this year's Ranji Trophy, especially in the thrilling final at Mysore against eventual champions Mumbai with a fighting second innings hundred that took the home team on the doorsteps of victory.
And then there's the option for the selectors to fall back on Mohammed Kaif of Uttar Pradesh if they want an experienced man to prop up the middle order which looks shorn of the needed steel to counter the SA pace attack.
Kaif had an ordinary run in the Ranji Trophy for UP who made the semis before losing to Karnataka.
But the one-day discard's double century in the Duleep Trophy quarter final against East Zone in Mohali followed by the gritty 112 on the opening day of the semi final against South Zone at Indore on Tuesday that lifted Central from a deep rut has suddenly pitch-forked him into the reckoning.
There is also the option of including regular India 'A' players Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, both of who have scored consistently in domestic cricket and would be in consideration.
How many from this lot make it to the squad would depend on the fitness of Laxman whose finger injury needed ten stitches to mend.
At the moment it seems both Dravid, whose jaw was broken while batting against Bangladesh at Mirpur and was hospitalised, and Yuvraj, who has sustained a wrist injury, cannot be considered at least for the Test opener.
Murali Vijay, who replaced Laxman in the Mirpur Test, is also expected to be retained in the full squad as the third-choice opener behind Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.
In bowling, there's an injury doubt over pacer S Sreesanth after the Kerala bowler sustained a torn hamstring during the Test rubber in Bangladesh and was sent home after the opener in Chittagong. He's unlikely to be fit for the opening match against SA.
Young Karnataka pacer Abhimanyu Mithun, who has been very impressive with his extra pace right through the season and was the top wicket taker in Ranji Trophy, appears a ready-made replacement choice for the selectors for Sreesanth as both are right arm bowlers. There are also other options like Sudeep Tyagi of UP.
The spin department too has not performed up to the ark with spearhead Harbhajan Singh not showing signs of leading the pack in the expected fashion.
A game of musical chairs is also being played amongst leg spinner Amit Mishra and left arm spinner Pragyan Ojha with the former dropped controversially for the second Test in Mirpur despite having taken seven wickets and done well with the bat in the first Test in Chittagong against Bangladesh.
With Mumbai having won the Ranji title for the 39th time, there would be extra pressure on the selectors for including another player from domestic cricket's traditional powerhouse.
With the spinners not really dominating the rival batsmen of late, they could be tempted to have another look-in at Romesh Powar, the one-day discard from the domestic champions who can be handy with the bat too.
Cricket Board's secretary N Srinivasan had said in a media release that the selectors would choose the team for both the Tests. But in the light of the injuries sustained by Dravid and Yuvraj subsequently it's to be seen whether the selectors would pick the squad only for the opening match against SA.
The second Test against the Proteas is to be held at Kolkata's Eden Gardens from February 14.
The five-man selection panel headed by Krishnamachari Srikkanth, would also pick the Board President's squad for the two-day warm-up tie against SA at Nagpur scheduled on February 2 and 3.