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Zak returns to Test squad

- Gambhir is a notable omission, but Ishant gets the nod
Zaheer Khan
Gautam Gambhir

Calcutta: Zaheer Khan made a comeback to the Indian Test side after close to a year but Gautam Gambhir remained out of favour as the selectors announced the squads for the Test and ODI series in South Africa, after a meeting in Vadodara, on Monday.

The tour, featuring three ODIs and two Tests, is India’s first overseas assignment after the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar.

The 35-year-old Zaheer, who only recently returned to competitive cricket after battling fitness issues, has played three Ranji Trophy games this season and has taken 13 wickets at an average of 19.84.

It is obvious that the selectors and the team management are banking on the old war-horse, who, incidentally, has been dropped from the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s list of contracted players, for the tricky South African conditions.

Zaheer last played for India in the Eden Test against England, in December last year. He has played 88 Tests and is five short of the 300-wicket mark. Zaheer didn’t find a place in the ODI squad though.

Gambhir, however, wasn’t as lucky. The opener has been in fine form of late, having accumulated 372 runs from three Ranji matches, at an impressive average of 74.40 and with a highest score of 153.

Interestingly, Baroda batsman Ambati Rayudu has found a place in the Test squad. Rayudu, 28, made his international debut during the one-day tour of Zimbabwe in August and has also been named in the ODI squad.

Ajinkya Rahane has been retained in the Test squad and has made the 16-member one-day squad as well.

The Test squad is expectedly pace-heavy, having as many as five fast bowlers. Apart from Zaheer, the other pacers in the Test squad are Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.

Ishant, who has also got the nod for the ODI squad, is definitely a surprise inclusion. Though he had a pretty successful outing — with match figures of 9/103 — in the only Ranji match he has played this season, he had a terrible one-day series against Australia and was dropped for Test and ODI series against the West Indies.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha are the selected Test spinners while all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who will serve as the third spinner, makes a return to the Test squad after being rested for the second Test against the West Indies.

Bengal’s Wriddhiman Saha has made the cut in the Test squad as the back-up ’keeper to captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

The Test squad thus has seven specialist batsmen, two wicketkeepers, five pacers, two spinners and one all-rounder.

While Shikar Dhawan and Murali Vijay are certain to open the innings, Virat Kohli is expected to take the No.4 four slot vacated by Sachin.

Cheteshwar Pujara will bat at No.3, while Rohit Sharma will take the No.5 slot, followed by Ajinkya Rahane or Ravindra Jadeja, depending on the team combination.

Zaheer is expected to feature in the playing XI. Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are the front-runners for to partner the senior-most pacer.

Ashwin is expected to mantle the spin duty, while Ojha may only get a chance depending on the pitch conditions.

Yuvraj Singh, who hasn't been in the best of forms, has somehow kept his place in the squad for the ODIs. In the one-dayers versus Australia, Yuvraj played in six matches, batting in four innings. However, the sum total of his runs was an abysmal 19, at an average of 4.75. His highest score was 12. In the ongoing ODI series against the West Indies, he has scores of 16 not out and 28.

Leggie Amit Mishra and Haryana pacer Mohit Sharma have also been included in the one-day squad.

Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh, who like Zaheer were not handed central contracts, have been ignored for both the squads.

The tour gets underway with the first of three ODIs starting December 5, followed by the two Tests.

The three ODIs will be played at Johannesburg, Durban and Centurion on December 5, 8, 11 respectively.

Then the Indians will play a two-day practice match against South African Invitational XI at the Willowmoore Park in Benoni.