Chennai: An injury to Praveen Kumar has left an empty slot for another seam bowler in India's Test squad for their tour of Australia. ESPNcricinfo looks at the prospects of the three bowlers who are most likely to figure in the selectors' discussions, to be held on Monday.
It has been over three years since Irfan Pathan played a Test for India, and two since he slipped off the international scene. Lack of pace and penetration were two of the reasons he was dropped, and other seamers took his place. His performances in this Ranji Trophy season, however, have revived his chances of playing for India. He is currently the leading wicket-taker in the Elite division, with 21 wickets in four matches for Baroda, including five-wicket hauls in three consecutive matches.
The selectors could be looking to replace Praveen with a bowler of similar pace and swing to compliment the faster Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron. Irfan's abilities as a batsman also give him the edge, though his bowling form alone may be enough to merit selection. According to Sanath Kumar, the Baroda coach, Irfan seems to have got his bite back, and it shows in his body language.
"He's improving in every game. He is now getting his inswing back in a big way and he's getting the ball to swing away as well," Kumar told ESPNcricinfo. "His pace and accuracy have also improved."
Speed was never Irfan's forte and in the years since his Test debut, on the 2003-04 tour of Australia, he dropped a yard or two of pace. Sanath Kumar said Irfan's pace was now up a notch and he had developed the stamina to bowl longer spells.
"He has been bowling eight-nine over spells regularly. In a day he's been bowling around 25 overs, which is quite impressive for a fast bowler. His strength is with the new ball."
Irfan got his groove back, Kumar said, due to some technical changes. "We've worked on his loading. He used to load high and behind his body. That used to put a lot of strain on his back, which affected his balance and consequently his accuracy. We also worked on his wrist position and he's now able to swing the ball late. Overall, he appears more confident."
Irfan's chances of going to Australia will be helped by the fact that he is a left-arm bowler, something India may need if Zaheer Khan breaks down again. Experience in Australia and his Ranji form give Irfan his best chance of breaking into the national team since 2009.
Vinay Kumar is one of two Karnataka bowlers - Abhimanyu Mithun is the other - competing for the slot vacated by Praveen. Vinay has been a regular in India's one-day plans but is yet to play a Test. He was not selected for the home Tests versus West Indies, with the selectors preferring to experiment with young quicks capable of bowling over 140kph consistently. Like Irfan, Vinay is not express and instead relies on swing and his legcutter. He has eight wickets from three Ranji Trophy games this season, with a best of 4 for 104, against Mumbai. His figures may not even closely match Irfan's but he belongs to a younger clutch of bowlers being tried out by the selectors, and has fairly satisfying numbers in India's two home ODI series since the World Cup.
Vinay had 4 for 30 against England in Delhi, and 2 for 43 against West Indies in Visakhapatnam, where he got the new ball to move and trouble the top order. Whether or not the selectors use the one-dayers as a yardstick for potential Test success will be known on Monday. Their choice should depend on the attributes they are looking for - pace v swing - with the aim being to fly out a varied seam attack capable of succeeding on Australian pitches.
If the selectors show a greater inclination towards pace, then Abhimanyu Mithun has the edge over the other two. He is the least experienced of the three, in terms of first-class matches played, but has more Test experience, however limited, than Vinay, and age on his side when compared to Irfan. Mithun, who burst onto the domestic scene two seasons ago, is yet to find his feet at the highest level. His opportunities so far have been limited to four Tests.
He was picked for the post-World Cup tour of the West Indies after Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth pulled out injured. He played the Barbados Test and took three wickets, but was omitted for the England tour and the home Tests against West Indies. He has 10 wickets in three matches in this Ranji season and was named as Praveen's replacement for the ongoing ODIs against West Indies. If there are long-term plans for him to be a Test bowler, this may be a good tour for him to go on, even if he does not get a Test.