Youngsters testing Indian selectors' patience

With top players missing the ongoing tri-series in Sri Lanka, the team management had an opportunity to look at the players on the fringes, what they have seen has not been pretty.

In You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon sings: "Why am I soft in the middle, the rest of my life is so hard". It is a refrain that could haunt Gary Kirsten as India build towards the ultimate 50-over challenge, the World Cup that starts on the subcontinent next February. With Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan all missing the ongoing tri-series in Sri Lanka, the team management had an opportunity to look at the players on the fringes.

What they have seen has not been pretty, with one contender after another fluffing his batting lines and falling flat on his face. With rain in the air, and a pitch livelier than most found in the region, the batsmen have been challenged far more than they are on featherbeds in Colombo or Rajkot. Not one, apart from Virender Sehwag - whose remarkable hand-eye coordination and irrepressible confidence put him in a different league - has shown signs of mastering the conditions.

But worryingly for India, those that would aspire to deputise for a Tendulkar or a Sehwag have not shown even basic competence. Rohit Sharma made two centuries in a tri-series in Zimbabwe, but has managed just 15 in three innings against better opposition. Dinesh Karthik, asked to step into Tendulkar's shoes at the top of the order, has 33 runs from four innings. Virat Kohli, who enjoyed a purple patch last season, has eight from two knocks, while Ravindra Jadeja, the "all-rounder" at No 7, has 37 from three outings.

The crisis of batting confidence has afflicted even those middle-order batsmen with credit in the bank. MS Dhoni's three innings have fetched him just 73, while Suresh Raina, who led in Zimbabwe, will hope that a return of 36 from four innings is not indicative of the sort of slump that cost him his place in the squad four years ago. Yuvraj Singh, another flirting with the selectors' patience, has fashioned just 49 from three innings.

With the clock ticking louder and few games left to experiment with the squad composition, who else can the five wise men look at? Rahul Dravid would be a sentimental pick - and he did lead the way with 76 against Pakistan when recalled to the team last year - but it is far more likely that they will consider the players who showcased their talent on the recent A tour of England. Tamil Nadu's Abhinav Mukund averaged more than 50 at a healthy strike-rate while scoring 263 runs in a tri-series that featured the England Lions and West Indies A.

The star of the show, though, was Cheteshwar Pujara, whose aggregate of 332 came at nearly a run a ball. If it is a dasher they seek, then Shikhar Dhawan might be a left-field pick. He was not the most consistent, but he belted 166 from just 127 balls faced. The other dilemma surrounds the No 7 slot. Jadeja's bowling has been steady, but his batting has been weak and listless. Irfan Pathan, who has not played for India since February 2009, is at the other extreme.

He can bat anywhere in the order and strike the ball a long way, but his bowling can neither threaten nor contain. With Praveen Kumar having made the swing-bowler's spot in the side his own, Pathan can only wait and hope that others slip up. India won the Asia Cup in June and may yet triumph in this topsy-turvy series. But for those struggling on the periphery, Simon's voice - "I want a shot at redemption, Don't want to end up a cartoon, in a cartoon graveyard" - could well be the best guide.