Gautam Gambhir's presence was felt by his absence on Sunday. In a curious turn of events, Indian skipper MS Dhoni launched a veiled attack on the Sandeep Patil- led selection committee while addressing the media prior to the team's departure to South Africa for a series comprising three ODIs and two Tests.

It was apparent that Dhoni didn't like the exclusion of Gautam Gambhir for the series when he was asked who would perform the role of the third opener in the series. "Gambhir is our third opener," he stressed while leaving the media contingent stunned.

When reminded that Gambhir wasn't part of the squad that flew out to SA late on Monday, Dhoni said, "You asked who are you looking at as the third opener, I replied. You didn't specify if you were asking about someone in this team."

The No. 4 conundrum

He was less cryptic though when asked about the No. 4 position and who would occupy the slot left vacant by the great Sachin Tendulkar. "Is it not possible to not look at number four at all? I mean, why not play 1, 2, 3, and then 5, 6, 7?" "It's not about someone replacing someone else. Whoever walks in at number four will bring a fresh character into the side and will progress from there. As of now we have not decided who will bat at No. 4," he added.

'A New Beginning'

With the last member of the senior brigade out of the team, this is very much Dhoni's side and the skipper wants his young turks to express themselves sans fear. So what if this is the first time India will be playing a series in SA without Tendulkar. "There's always a new start. When Paaji played his first Test, it was his first Test. It's the same for a youngster starting now. What matters is exposure. When you go to a new place, it's about how well you adjust. It's about figuring out the pace and the bounce of wickets and it's all a part of learning," the skipper said.

'Advantage playing ODIs first'

It's a given that the team will not be given flat tracks and the wickets will be pacy and bouncy and Dhoni admits that the conditions will be trying. However, he feels it will be an advantage playing ODIs before as that will offer the batsman a chance to gauge the wickets. "Our batsman will have to quickly adjust to the bounce and figure out which deliveries we need to leave. We're playing the ODIs first and given the way we've performed in the format, the 50-over game will allow our batsman to play shots, score runs, and in turn get rid of nerves factor. A positive factor is that our Test and ODI squads are almost the same."

'Don't be scared of scrutiny'

This series will be the first away assignment for India post the twin 0-4 debacles in England and Australia and Dhoni knows his team, although young, will be criticized if a similar performance is dished out. "If you're part of the team then regardless of whether it's your first Test or 50th, criticism is bound to follow if you don't perform. That's something they can't get away from."

'Sixth batsman important'

With players like Ashwin and Bhuvneshwar Kumar contributing well down the order, there could be a temptation for India to field five bowlers. Dhoni though prefers the cushion of an extra batsman. "That is something we have to go to South Africa and decide. We have to look at the batting strength and then figure if four bowlers are enough. If you look at the last two Test (in Kolkata and Mumbai), it was actually the sixth batsman who had a big impact on the game."

'Give Ashwin a chance overseas'

Ashwin has had a great time with the ball in India, but has played just three Tests overseas in Australia. Will that lack of exposure hurt? "It's important to play them. Otherwise, even after five years you'll be asking me the same question."

'Always valued domestic performances'

In the series against West Indies, Dhoni chose to back form over reputation and handed out debuts to Mohd Shami and Rohit Sharma and the move clicked. Is it the famed captain's instinct? "Well, I like to keep it very simple. It is not for us to judge cricketers. If someone is doing well in domestic cricket then the player needs to be given a chance. Principally this has worked for me. There are times when a player is naturally gifted and there is this tendency to play him before others but, all said and done, if a player is doing well in the domestic circuit, he needs to be given a chance. Then it is up to that player to prove himself at the highest level," he stressed.

Gambhir More Stills

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