Praveen Kumar will miss India's tour of Australia due to a fractured rib. Three players, according to Cricinfo, are in serious contention for Praveen's slot. Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and Irfan Pathan. Irfan has been in very good bowling form this season, with 21 wickets in 4 games so far. Mithun and Vinay Kumar have had less success. But there are a couple of other aspects that are relevant to this selection decision.
First, there is the value of the swing bowler. India will play Ishant Sharma as one of the three pacemen in any event. Zaheer, should he stay fit, is a brilliantly versatile bowler these days. He can attack with a fuller length, move the ball both ways, and when required, throttle back and bowl back-of-a-length. Given that the new ball usually swings, and given that reverse swing is not unheard of in Australia, a swing bowler, or, more specifically, a bowler who delivers a swing bowler's length, is a valuable commodity. There seems to be a general trend away from the tall back-of-a-length bowler in Test Cricket, in favor of bowlers who pitch the ball up and swing it at high pace. The age of the tall, front on bowler who depends on finding a good length around off stump is at an end. The rise of Morne Morkel and Ishant Sharma has turned out to be an anomaly in an age defined by Dale Steyn, Zaheer Khan and James Anderson and now, possibly by Pat Cummins, Umesh Yadav and Stuart Broad.
Abhimanyu Mithun has not had the best possible breaks when it comes to playing for India. He played on very difficult bowling wickets in Sri Lanka. Realistically, the choice for Praveen Kumar's replacement should be between Mithun and Irfan Pathan. It will be a difficult choice, especially with Irfan's additional gifts with the bat.
This is where a second issue is worth looking into. Realistically, it is hard to see India play 2 spinners in any of the Tests on this tour - Melbourne, Sydney, Perth or Adelaide. A choice has to be made between Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin. Ashwin is the more attacking bowler, if only due to the fact that he possesses the potentially mysterious (in the sense that some Australian batsmen may not pick him from the hand or in the flight) carrom ball. But he is also the less accurate bowler. He has a greater tendency to drop it short than Pragyan Ojha, and concedes far more low-risk runs than Ojha does. If a spinner can be square cut, or pulled, or played off the back foot into the leg side every few balls, these are runs that come with very few risks for a batsman. Pragyan Ojha will also concede runs, but he will have to be driven or swept - both of which bring the edge of the bat into play, force the batsman to play away from the pad and away from the body, or across a straight ball. In this sense, if the choice for a lone spinner is to be made, it makes sense to go with Pragyan Ojha , because Ojha will give Dhoni greater control.
The choice between Ojha and Ashwin is complicated by Ashwin's decisively superior ability with the bat. If the spinner is to bat at number 8, then it is clear that Ashwin must play. However, the danger of picking a bowler for his batting is obvious.
This is where the judgment call will have to be made. Are Ravichandran Ashwin and Irfan Pathan better bowlers than their immediate competitors? I haven't watched Irfan Pathan bowl recently. But the possibility that someone with his talent may have turned the corner hard to resist. It feels wrong to not take that chance.
In my view India's XI for the Boxing Day Test will be as follows:
Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kohli, Dhoni, Irfan, Zaheer, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha.
But they may well be tempted, given that it is the first Test of the series, to play the following XI:
Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kohli, Dhoni, Ashwin, Irfan, Zaheer, Ishant Sharma