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Sixteen... of the best?

The Indian team for the Caribbean has just one surprise -- Navjot Singh Sidhu has made a comeback, less than a year after his dramatic walkout during the tour of England. The only person making his debut will be Abey Kuruvilla, a fast bowler from Bombay, who will replace Salil Ankola in the team that returned from South Africa.

Going by the miserable opening partnerships that India put up in South Africa, and Ganguly's obvious shortcomings against the new ball (and quality fast bowling in general), the case for Sidhu being recalled was so strong that not even the Indian selectors could overlook his claims. Either Ajay Jadeja or V.V.S. Laxman will be his partner; coach Madan Lal had demanded a trio of opening batsmen and the selectors have agreed. The plea for a 17th player (made by Tendulkar) has been rejected as also Madan's plea for five specialist new-ball bowlers. The four seamers (Srinath, Prasad, Ganesh and Kuruvilla) and two spinners (Kumble and Joshi) were all that the selectors were willing to send.

The pity of it all is that a man who could have opened alongside Sidhu has not even been considered. Sanjay Manjrekar may well turn out to be another of the forgotten men of Indian cricket -- Pravin Amre is the last one who comes to mind. Manjrekar was dropped for no obvious reasons; despite being one of the best technically equipped batsmen in the country he will have to sit at home and watch his former colleagues tackle the West Indies.

Robin Singh was recalled during the one-day series against South Africa in India; that was a bit of a surprise, as he is well past his prime. He was rated very highly in the mid-80s and most observers had predicted that he would be one of the better players to emerge during that decade. But he never quite made it. One tour, to the West Indies, and that was it. He came back to the team at a time when he may well have been thinking of calling it a day. However, thereafter he has done enough in the one-dayers to justify his place as a specialist one-day player.

It will be tough for a fast bowler to cut his teeth in the West Indies. If the selectors had intended to send Kuruvilla along, then it would have been more advisable to let him gain some experience of bowling on bouncy pitches; South Africa would have been ideal. Apparently, the thinking, which is generally short-term, was that one should satisfy all comers and so Ankola got the nod after Johnson was sent back. Ankola is another who has been in and out of the team for a long time and he is also past his best now.

Given the way that Vinod Kambli is being given the cold shoulder, it is doubtful whether he will ever get a look in again. He hasn't done too badly in the domestic season but then is that really a consideration? It might be well to pick him when he still has the ability and the mind to contribute; picking him after five years, just to prove (to the extremely gullible, only) that he was not really overlooked, just skipped because there were better players (who? Jadeja or Laxman?) will serve no purpose.

Another player who may well feel that his chances of getting selected again are slim is Venkatapathy Raju. He went to South Africa, played hardly a game, and then went back before the triangular one-dayers began. Sunil Joshi was brought in and given the chance to prove himself -- which he did. In truth, Joshi should have been picked in the first place. Somebody, somewhere must have lost his fairy godmother.

One casualty of the forthcoming tour -- that is if India do not perform as expected -- could well be Madan Lal himself. The team has not done terribly well under him and he is not exactly the kind of person who can explain why. He does not seem to be thinking along the same lines as the captain either and a tour of the West Indies is a tough proposition. The next few months will be crucial.

The Indian squad: Tendulkar (capt), Kumble (vice-capt), Azharuddin, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Srinath, Prasad, Ganesh, Kuruvilla, Joshi, Mongia, Karim, Sidhu, Robin Singh and Jadeja.

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