Team India: New inner circle

Team India
You can generally put Virender Sehwag anywhere on a cricket field and expect to see him boisterous and full of life. In his own unassuming fashion that is. Not surprising, considering that the daredevil from Najafgarh looks to be enjoying himself even while facing up to the meanest bowlers on the planet humming tunes to himself among other things. Sehwag, however, seemed to be in a completely unique sphere of bliss, while doing his business in the slips during the first Test against New Zealand at Hyderabad. There was even a sense of theatre about him.

Over all, he took four catches in the match, all pouched at first slip to the spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Though not generally someone who displays too much excitement, each of his catches here were followed by a series of animated expressions and wild celebrations. Especially after the one-handed diving effort to get rid of James Franklin in the second innings.

He might not be as highly celebrated a catcher as a Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman. Nor one among the fleet-footed bunch that include the likes of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina. But apart from being able to cultivate a sense of calm around proceedings, Sehwag also has one of the safest pair of hands in the Indian team. And is in no way a liability in the outfield despite not being athletic in the modern take of the term.

Skipper MS Dhoni had admitted his concern over finding a replacement to Dravid at slips to spinners in particular on the eve of the match. If Cheteshwar Pujara had massive shoes to fill at No.3 in the batting-order, so did Sehwag as he took position next to the 'keeper. And at Uppal, he proved that India might not after all miss the most accomplished slipper in the history of Tests as brazenly as some might have thought.

Hand-eye master

The very same traits that make Sehwag the dangerous batsmen he is seem to help him in being a safe slip catcher. An ability to stay still and balanced on his feet, stay focused on the ball till the last moment and that hand-eye coordination the reflexes he showed for the Franklin catch.

The Hyderabad Test was all about the change of guard in the Indian middle-order with the retirements of Dravid and Laxman. It was also about the restructuring of the slip-cordon that the duo had occupied for close to 15 years. And Sehwag always seemed the obvious choice to replace Dravid and stand closest to the wicket-keeper against the fast bowlers too.

Kohli and Raina can easily be ranked alongside the best fielders in world cricket presently. But standing in the slips in Tests requires immense powers of endurance and fortitude. Virtues that you couldn't be sure the two T20 generation stars, who have spent a majority of their career diving and sliding in the outfield, possessed. And while Dhoni did hint before the Test that the two will make up the slip-cordon along with Sehwag, it seemed nothing more than an anxious experiment.

To their credit Kohli and Raina who stood at second and third slip respectively weren't really tested to a great extent with the fast bowlers not having to bowl much on the spin-assisting Uppal wicket. There were hardly any edges that carried in their direction, and while Kohli should retain his spot, Raina will have to start scoring more runs in front of the wicket before he starts cementing himself in the slip-cordon.

With the spinners in full flight and the Uppal wicket providing them with turn and bounce, Kohli was kept really busy however at leg-slip and gully-both off and on side-when Ashwin and Ojha were in action. He stood ever-alert, like an acrobat, plunging to his right, taking catches from near his toes, and diving on both sides. He hung on to three catches in the first innings, two excellently taken off inside-edges from sharp bouncing Ashwin deliveries. The second did create a mini-controversy about whether he had his fingers fully beneath the ball, but that catch to dismiss Ross Taylor was the icing on the cake as far as close-in catches were concerned at Uppal.

Newcomers' slot

Though he might have limped off the field after being hit on the knee by a Kane Williamson pull, Cheteshwar Pujara will have to return to the short-leg position, considering he is the kid of this side. Short-leg has a tendency to be earmarked for the newest member to the team and that's exactly where he stood during his fleeting few appearances in South Africa in 2010. But his quick reflexes might just keep him there for a while.

With India set to play 10 more Tests on home soil from hereon, the close-in fielding will be as crucial as the spinners' performance. While Pujara and Ashwin will certainly be the highlights of the Uppal Test, Dhoni & Co will go into Bangalore having settled the raised eyebrows regarding their catching cordons.

Testing times

No problems with Dhoni: VVS

VVS Laxman on Monday declined to comment on his relationship with skipper MS Dhoni but clarified that there was no controversy as has been reported by the media. "There was no controversy at all... I don't want to speak anything about it," Laxman said. It started with Laxman telling the media that he couldn't get in touch with Dhoni to intimate him about his decision to quit international cricket. This was followed by Dhoni's admission that he wasn't invited to Laxman's house for dinner like some of the other seniors in the team.

Ashwin moves up ranking board

Ravichandran Ashwin's match haul of 12 for 85 against New Zealand in the first Test has helped him vault 19 places to a career-best rank of 25th in the latest ICC rankings for Test bowlers. Pragyan Ojha, who ended with a match haul of six for 92, has also jumped six places to 15th spot. The rankings for Test bowlers is still headed by South Africa's Dale Steyn, with team mate Vernon Philander and Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan in second and third positions, respectively. Meanwhile, the only centurion in the Hyderabad Test, Cheteshwar Pujara, has re-entered the player rankings for Test batsmen in 58th position. The other Indian batsmen to make upward movements are MS Dhoni in 40th (up by three) and Virat Kohli, who is in now in 49th spot (up by two). Sachin Tendulkar has dropped out of the top 10 and is now in 11th place while Suresh Raina has slipped seven places to 80th.

NZ toil hard before 2nd Test

After being rattled by Indian off-spinner R Ashwin in the opening Test, New Zealand's cricketers sweated it out at the nets for two hours to prepare for the second and final Test in Bangalore starting August 31. The visiting team trained even as the hosts remained confined to the hotel. "Ashwin was a big factor. We have some planning in place and we hope to get them right before the Bangalore Test," a New Zealand Cricket official said.

With no warm-up scheduled for the visitors, New Zealand were dismissed twice for 159 and 164 inside four days. "Spin is an area we need to work on and come back harder and stronger for Bangalore," Taylor said after their defeat. "We are not big players of using our feet, so we need to create lengths in different ways. In the next game, I am sure we will say that," he added, as the New Zealanders were seeing working on their foot-work.

Agencies

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