It’s one of those little nuggets of trivia now that India’s legendary spin quartet played only one Test together, at Edgbaston in 1967. They took 18 wickets and kept England under 300 in both innings, but traditional frailties with the bat away from home scuppered any chance of victory. Thereafter, it was always a case of musical chairs, with S Venkataraghavan or Erapalli Prasanna usually missing out.
Leaving aside the spin duo of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who now occupy two of the top three places in India’s all-time wicket-takers’ list, most of the epochal victories in recent times have been scripted by the pace trio of Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth. Well, here’s another trivia test for you. How many times have all three played together in a Test match?
Zaheer and Sreesanth combined to devastating effect at the Wanderers in 2006, while Ishant came into his own on the tour of Australia in 2008. After an injury blighted couple of seasons, Sreesanth returned to telling effect at Kanpur against Sri Lanka last year. But with India usually employing a two pace-two spin combination for home Tests and one or the other on the mend from some injury, they have only shared the Test stage once, at Chittagong earlier this year where they combined for 12 wickets.
Given that the back-up has either regressed to the extent that they’re not even good enough to be considered for warm-up games – RP Singh and Irfan Pathan – or are far too callow to be risked against the world’s best sides – Jaidev Unadkat and Abhimanyu Mithun – it goes without saying that managing the pace stable is India’s biggest headache over the next few months.
Zaheer has just returned from injury, and looked well off the pace in the Mumbai Indians’ first game in South Africa. Sreesanth too has just returned from the physio’s couch, and will get his only chance to stake a claim in a warm-up game against Ricky Ponting’s Australians. For the moment, Ishant, far from impressive on the recent tour of Sri Lanka, looks the only certain starter for the Mohali Test that starts on October 1.
Given the itineraries that are choc-a-bloc with games we could do without, injury crises are hardly an Indian problem. England are already reconciled to the fact that neither Andrew Flintoff nor Simon Jones will play a Test again, while Australia have seen both Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus struck down after promising starts. For West Indies, Jerome Taylor struggles to stay fit, while New Zealand have waved goodbye to Shane Bond and possibly Jacob Oram.
In order to manage the workload effectively, the team management needs to have power that borders on the dictatorial. Stuart Broad didn’t play the home Tests against Bangladesh. Instead, he was on a strength-and-conditioning programme. Steven Finn has been nursed through the home season with one eye clearly on the Ashes. Once you recognise who your prime assets are, you mothball them from time to time to ensure that they’re around for the biggest challenges.
India’s selectors and coach don’t have that luxury. In addition to captaining in all three forms of the game, MS Dhoni’s grarled fingers have to cope with Indian Premier League and Champions League duty for the Chennai Super Kings. The Board President’s XI side to play the Australians could start a man short if two IPL teams make the final in South Africa. The board’s priorities, like those of the players, have clearly changed, but there will be many an angry question to answer if both the coveted No.1 ranking and dreams of World Cup glory are lost as a result of a schedule that has been allowed to spread unchecked like a tangle of weeds.
*This article was first published in The Sunday Guardian on September 12.