Colombo: Little would Mahendra Singh Dhoni have realised that a simple request on the eve of the England match would leave him with a selection headache of massive proportions, however happy he might claim to be with the problem of plenty.
With qualification to the Super Eights assured following their win over Afghanistan, India sought to utilise the opportunity of a relatively low-pressure match to give the bench a go in their final Group A encounter. Consequently, Dhoni asked Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and R Ashwin if they terribly minded sitting out the England match. All three acceded to the captain's request.
In normal course, that should have been that. With the Super Eights beginning, they should automatically have walked into the playing XI. However, it's no longer as simple as that.
Zaheer and Ashwin will almost certainly return for the opening Super Eights Group 2 match, against Australia at the R Premadasa Stadium on Friday night. Sehwag's case isn't as straightforward. His selection will depend on what combination India choose to put out, because if Dhoni does persist with the five-bowler formula which worked wonders against England, he will be hard pressed to fit Sehwag into the scheme of things.
Zaheer for Ashok Dinda and Ashwin for Piyush Chawla appear relatively straightforward choices. Zaheer will be energised after a game away and Ashwin is clearly India's No. 1 spinner across all formats, Harbhajan Singh's rip-roaring comeback notwithstanding. Ironically, it's Harbhajan's overwhelming success against England, and the possibility of the Premadasa strip becoming slower – all three of India's Super Eights matches will be played entirely under lights – that has put a question mark over Sehwag's return to the playing XI.
Dhoni did mention the other day that Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir continue to be India's best options to open the batting. "The middle order has done well and the two openers we have are the best openers we have got who can win matches on their own," Dhoni had said, minutes after India completed a 90-run rout of England. When he was asked for a potential combination against Australia, he said, "It will be a difficult decision but as now I don't know, frankly. We will have to see what is best for the side and decide accordingly."
Prior to the England game, in the last month and a half, Sehwag has missed three limited-overs internationals, but not one of them on form. He was forced to sit out the final One-Day International and the subsequent Twenty20 International during the tour of Sri Lanka in July-August through injury. He also had to skip the T20I against New Zealand in Chennai earlier this month with a mild bout of 'flu. India won two of those matches and lost the third by one run, so it wouldn't be out of place to say that he wasn't badly missed.
Sehwag hasn't always been a form player. Unlike a Virat Kohli, who latches on to a good thing and makes it count, Sehwag has oscillated between the sublime and the ordinary, while having this uncanny ability to come good when least expected. While he is still struggling to come to terms with international T20 cricket despite his enormous success for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL, he continues to possess potential for uninhibited damage that makes other sides wary of him.
"I would never say that Virender Sehwag is out of form," said Michael Hussey, the Australian No. 3. "He can miss out a couple of times but we all know that every time he misses out, he is closer to the next big one. Normally when he scores big runs, he scores them quickly, so I will never say Sehwag is out of form."
Strong words from an experienced campaigner, and indicative of the respect in which Australia hold Sehwag, but the fact remains that in 17 T20Is, Sehwag has made only 348 runs at 21.75. Admittedly, his strike rate is an impressive 149.35, but while he has reached double figures five times in his last seven innings, his highest score apart from 64 against Sri Lanka at Mohali in December 2009 is 26.
Since making 96 against Sri Lanka in the first ODI at Hambantota in July, Sehwag has gone seven international innings without a half-century. Normally, that may not be a cause for worry, but with Rohit Sharma finding his feet in the middle order and Yuvraj Singh providing both a left-handed option with the bat and left-arm spin with the ball, the scrap for places has intensified manifold.
It's difficult to see Dhoni leaving Harbhajan out unless the pitch is fresh, with some grass on it and no scope whatsoever for a second specialist spinner, just as it is difficult to see him going in with just two seamers and two spinners. Dhoni has always preferred to play three seamers in the limited-overs game, a luxury he can now afford with the emergence from the shadows of Irfan Pathan.
To find a way to accommodate Sehwag, Dhoni will have to revert to four bowlers and maybe shelve his three-seamer theory, or leave out a middle-order batsman if he is determined to play five bowlers. Both scenarios are possible, but notwithstanding Sehwag's ability to turn it on without warning, whether Dhoni will be emboldened enough to go with either of them, given Sehwag's recent form, is open to question. Then again, with Dhoni, you never know, do you?