Is Dhoni preparing to spring a surprise?
Helping hands: Ajinkya Rahane, assisting Sachin Tendulkar loosen his limbs during the team's practice session ahead of the final Test, make his debut on Friday. Photo: S. Subramanium | The Hindu

With the series firmly in India’s hip-pocket, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has an opportunity to either go for the ‘kill’ in search of an unprecedented 4-0 triumph over once-dominant Australia or use the final Test staring here on Friday to ‘experiment’.

With a finger-injury keeping local Shikhar Dhawan away from action at the Ferozeshah Kotla, speculations are ripe over the possible playing XI. With the National selectors adding Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina to the squad before the Delhi left-hander stayed out due to jaundice, the team is left with just one specialist opener — M. Vijay.

Though the team has Mumbai opener Ajinkya Rahane since November last, chief selector Sandeep Patil had made it clear that the batsman was picked for a middle-order slot. Though Rahane is yet to be tested, he is being ‘groomed’ for the middle-order, in anticipation of the later-than-sooner retirement of Sachin Tendulkar.

With Rohit Sharma and Yuvraj Singh having failed to make the most of the chances offered, and Manoj Tiwary’s repeated non-availability due to injuries, the selectors seem to be investing in Rahane in a new role.

Pujara at the top

On Friday, Dhoni faces the question of choosing a make-shift opener to accompany Vijay. The most likely candidate seems to be Cheteshwar Pujara, who did the job in place of an injured Dhawan in the second innings at Mohali.

Should Pujara open the innings, Virat Kohli looks the best prospect to take the number three spot. That should leave two contenders — Rahane and Suresh Raina — for the lone vacant spot in the middle-order.

Going by Patil’s categorical assertion that Rahane has been retained to be tested only in the middle-order, his selection on Friday looks obvious.

Since Raina has been added to the squad, it is likely that Dhoni has some plans for him. If Raina is not chosen ahead of Rahane on Friday, the UP batsman can still return to the playing eleven should Dhoni prefer to go in with an altered bowling attack from the one that played in Mohali.

Dhoni has maintained that he would like to give Pragyan Ojha a full run. R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, the top two wicket-takers in the series, cannot be ignored. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has impressed with his swing bowling having rattled the Australian top-order twice in the series. In comparison, Ishant Sharma has been far less effective against a softened-up opposition on spin-friendly pitches.

Is Dhoni ready to spring a surprise on Friday morning? Well, none can be too sure. His preference for the seven-batsman-four-bowler theory is well-known. But it is equally true that Jadeja’s emergence as an effective spinner on helpful tracks has allowed Dhoni the luxury of a five-man attack.

Whether Dhoni is going to experiment, by altering the bowling options to accommodate Rahane and Raina, remains to be seen. A surprise is in store nevertheless — even Raina as an opener.

But is it not ironical that a settled middle-order batsman can be asked to open and an opener is being readied to serve the middle-order. All this, when the country’s tested domestic structure has 27 first class teams with a minimum of 54 openers and many more middle-order batsmen.

Doesn’t it prove that the selectors have far less options to choose from than what may appear from a distance?

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