It is now well known that India did not quite embrace the Twenty20 format when it was first introduced. They went into the inaugural edition of the ICC World Twenty20 in 2007 on the back of just one international match in South Africa, a good 10 months preceding the tournament. Virender Sehwag captained the team in a game in which India emerged winners, where the match was set up by the bowlers who restricted a strong South African batting line-up to 120.
In 2007, triumph at the ICC World T20 was partly due to the bowlers, who played a vital role throughout the competition. This was most evident in the final super-eights clash against South Africa, which India had to win to qualify for the semifinal. Defending 154, an attack consisting of RP Singh, S Sreesanth, Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan tied the South African team in knots. It helped that the game was played at Kingsmead, Durban, where there's assistance for the quick bowlers. And, in the final, the team defended 157, a score which was chased down with ease in Johannesburg during the league stages of the competition.
In sharp contrast, the bowling was taken to the cleaners in 2009 and 2010 in England and West Indies respectively. Irfan and Harbhajan featured in both those editions of the World T20. But, that was when Irfan was making up the numbers as a third seamer who could chip in with a couple of overs, while Harbhajan was the lead spinner, with Pragyan Ojha and Piyush Chawla to complement him.
Cut to 2012, and there is a role reversal. Irfan is likely to feature as a new ball partner to Zaheer Khan, while Harbhajan, making a comeback to the Indian team after a year, is likely to bolster the spin attack with R Ashwin as the lead spinner. It is hard to compare both bowlers, given the vast difference in experience, but on current form, there is little doubt as to who deserves to be an automatic choice.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has watched Ashwin evolve into a fine craftsman at the Chennai Super Kings. His variations and his art of bowling with the new ball makes him an automatic selection, while Zaheer Khan and Irfan, who've both shown good form in the limited-overs series in Sri Lanka certain to make it to the playing XI, a fact which became evident watching the attention given to the two by Joe Dawes, the bowling coach, during the practise sessions. India have the perfect opportunity to add balance by playing five bowlers, but this is something Dhoni has not been especially keen on. Given Irfan and Ashwin's ability with the bat, India could have finally found the balance that they have been hoping for, especially in the lower middle-order, thus making a strong case for having Dhoni bat at No. 6, followed by the two allrounders.
Most teams have seamers who can add solid weight to the batting unit. Shane Watson, Abdul Razzaq, Jacob Oram, Thissara Perera, Jacques Kallis are the genuine allrounders in the game at the moment. While Irfan, may not be classified in the same league, his presence is certain to add a boost to the Indian team, given his return to form. In the recently concluded limited-overs series in Sri Lanka, he emerged as the pick of the Indian bowlers with 11 wickets in six matches. He also guided the team home in a tense chase in the fourth ODI.
It is a common belief that Sri Lankan conditions are more suited to spinners. However, if statistics during the current year is any indication, it is far from the only truth. During the limited-overs series between India and Sri Lanka, it was the pacers from both sides that did bulk of the damage. While for India, it was Irfan and Zaheer, who hogged the limelight in the ODIs, Ashok Dinda bagged four wickets in the one-off T20.
If that series was considered to be a one-off, the Sri Lankan Premier League further reinforced that fact. Shaminda Eranga emerged the highest wicket-taker in the tournament that lasted a little over three weeks, with Jacob Oram and Sohail Tanvir, both pacers, finishing second and third. The fact that seven out of the top ten bowlers were pacers, indicates a shift in conditions in favour of the quick men, especially under lights, where the ball tends to do a bit more. In the last five T20 Internationals in Sri Lanka, fast bowlers have taken 41 wickets and the spinners just 24.
The third seamer becomes a toss-up between L Balaji and Ashok Dinda, while Dhoni can always turn to Ashwin, Harbhajan and a host of part-timers to chip in with the ball if required.
On paper at least, this looks the best bowling combination India has put together for a World T20 event. The two warm-up matches in Colombo against Sri Lanka and Pakistan ahead of their tournament opener against Afghanistan on September 19, should provide a further platform to test the bowling strength and pick the right combination.