Can Harbhajan make a comeback?
Harbhajan Singh is out of the Indian team for almost six months, and has done little to catch the eye of the selectors. Bikash Mohapatra discusses the ace off-spinner's chances of returning.
How long can you hold on to your place in the national team based on past performances?
Not long enough, one would think. The purist argument would be: you either contribute to the team's cause or make way for another deserving player.
Sometimes there are aberrations to this rule, though; instances where a player's previous record is responsible for him holding on to his place vis-a-vis his present performances.
Harbhajan Singh is a case in point.
Once an integral part of the team, largely owing to his past record, the offie has been out of it for almost six months now. Not long enough for Harbhajan to be a forgotten entity, but, definitely, a good amount for him to start missing the same.
'I can't wait to be there (in the team),' Harbhajan was quoted as saying earlier this week, on the sidelines of the Vijay Hazare one-day tournament, where he is representing Punjab.
If one goes by current form, the above statement seems nothing more than wishful thinking.
Ever since his return from the National Cricket Academy, the spinner has done little to catch the eye of the selectors. No wonder they never considered him for the Asia Cup.
Batsmen no longer intimidated by Harbhajan's records
If performance is the lone barometer for selection, Harbhajan's case appears weak.
The 31-year-old has picked up only five wickets in six matches (@ 44.00) in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
The fact that three of those five wickets – along with an unbeaten 79 – came in one match (against Maharashtra) make those figures even less impressive.
It is difficult to ignore the fact that the veteran bowler went wicketless in the first three matches of the tournament – against Haryana, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir – before picking a wicket apiece against both Services and Himachal Pradesh.
The statistics also point out to the malaise that has afflicted him at the international level for a long time now – his inability to bag wickets.
The off-spinner was a certainty in the Indian team not long back, despite the fact that his performances had been showing a downward trend for a considerable period.
It came down to a point where his bowling reached its nadir.
A poor performance on India's disastrous tour of England, where he took only two wickets in two Tests (@ 143.50) and was 'ineffective' in every sense of the term, was a final nail in the coffin.
Cricket aficionados will definitely recall the instance when a belligerent Kevin Pietersen stepped out of his crease and employed the switch hit to get a maximum off Harbhajan, one among many instances that reiterated the fact that the batsmen were no longer intimidated by his records.
Either the offie had used up all his tricks, or the batsmen had found a way to tackle him.
An abdominal-muscle injury forced him to return home after the second Test in Nottingham. As things stand, that remains the last Test he was a part of.
Ashwin has proved to be a perfect replacment
The selectors opted to try left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha and off-spinner R Ashwin in the home series against the West Indies, and the duo produced compelling performances - Ashwin finished the series as the highest wicket-taker with 22 wickets (@ 22.90), while Ojha helped himself to 20 wickets (@ 22.50) to merit selection for the subsequent series.
Ashwin added a further nine wickets to his tally Down Under besides proving to be a decent bat low down the order – abilities that have made him a perfect replacement for Harbhajan.
When the selectors sat down to pick the team for the series Down Under they didn't have to look beyond these two options. As the chairman of selectors, K Srikkanth, put it, 'Unfortunately, we cannot help it [not picking Harbhajan] as the team selects itself.'
Harbhajan's case was further damaged by his poor show for Punjab in the Ranji Trophy, where he managed only two wickets in three matches (@ 102).
It marked another low in Harbhajan's fast declining career, one that has witnessed a downward slide since the retirement of Anil Kumble.
With Kumble for company
When Harbhajan bowled in tandem with Kumble, he flourished.
While Kumble successfully choked the flow of runs from one end, Harbhajan reaped the rewards at the other. With his senior partner in the side, the offie was aware that he could bowl a more attacking line and not worry about being hit, a strategy that created more opportunities, and, consequently, more wickets.
This bowling partnership, which coincided with the first decade of Harbhajan's career and came to a close with Kumble's retirement following the series against Australia in October 2008, saw the off-spinner pick 294 wickets in 70 Tests (@ 31.17), with 22 five-wicket hauls. (For the record, Kumble picked 429 wickets in 87 matches @ 30.11 in that period)
In the 54 Tests they played together in the period, Harbhajan snapped up 220 wickets (@ 32.22). Since Kumble's retirement, Harbhajan has claimed 112 wickets in 28 Tests (@ 36.00).
Then started the decline
Statistically speaking, Harbhajan's career has been in decline since 2006. The fact that he has bagged 187 wickets in 48 Tests (@ 37.26) during the period corroborates the same.
Comparing this to the fact that he picked 219 wickets (@ 27.00) in his first 50 Tests and the picture becomes clearer.
While in 2006 he claimed only 19 wickets from seven Tests (@ 52.79), the following year the figures were no better -- 13 wickets from four (@ 46.39).
Yes, there have been a few productive phases in between -- like the 63 wickets he picked in 13 Tests in 2008 (@ 31.53).
There have been sporadic flashes of brilliance as well -- like the 5-59 which helped India beat South Africa at Eden Gardens (2010) and square the series; or, for that matter, his 7-120 against the same opponents in Newlands last January.
Harbhajan's dismal performance in ODIs too
However, they have been few and far between. On the other hand is the fact that only three of 25 career five-wicket hauls have come in the last three years.
And, if one takes into account current form, suffice to say, the offie has only 20 wickets in six Tests (@ 38.05) in 2011, seven of them coming in one match.
It is not that the offie has under-performed in the game's longer version only. His performances have been equally dismal in the shorter versions as well.
In fact, inIndia's victorious World Cup campaign, he was one of the sore thumbs, with just nine wickets from an equal number of matches (@ 43.33).
Not quite a performer overseas
While his performance didn't merit selection for Australia, his experience might just have helped him secure a place.
However, a glance at the offie's record Down Under don't throw up interesting statistics. Harbhajan has taken nine wickets (@ 73.22) in four Tests on Australian soil.
On India's previous tour Down Under, in 2007-08, the spinner had a tally of eight wickets in three Tests (@ 61.25), while conceding over 100 runs in an innings on three occasions in that series.
In fact, he was more remembered for the infamous 'Monkeygate scandal', involving Andrew Symonds, than his exploits with the ball in that series.
His overall performance overseas also left a lot to be desired. Only 148 of his 406 Test wickets have come from the 46 Tests (@ 38.43) he has played away from India.
The selectors, expectedly, preferred to go with two in-form spinners than take a risk with Harbhajan again.
Performances matter, records don't
In his recent interviews, when asked to explain his decline in performance, Harbhajan has taken refuge in the fact that he wouldn't have taken 400 wickets had he not been good enough.
It is imperative to state here that no one doubts his quality. It is the form that is being questioned.
For the record, it took Harbhajan 96 Tests to take 400 wickets. Kumble had achieved the same in 11 fewer Tests. Muttaih Muralitharan took 72 Tests and Shane Warne (92) to achieve the same.
Following his omission from the home series against the West Indies, the 31-year-old tried, and failed to be among wickets in Punjab's opening three Ranji fixtures.
No one can take his place for granted
No sooner had the squad for Down Under been announced also came the news that the off-spinner has been ruled out of Punjab's Ranji game against Railways because of a shin injury. It was strange coincidence. Nonetheless, it was also the reason given for his pulling out of the remaining Ranji games.
Besides going to the NCA, the bowler also found time to host a reality show on a popular channel.
As mentioned earlier, his return to competitive cricket (Vijay Hazare) hasn't been very impressive, despite him being self-admittedly 'totally fit'.
His omission from the Asia Cup squad means it will take a few months – considering the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League will be played thereafter – before Harbhajan can contemplate an international comeback.
With age on his side, Harbhajan, though, has every chance of coming back to the team again. The IPL will provide him another opportunity to impress the selectors.
However, his exclusion from the Test squad for successive series reiterates the fact that no one can take his place for granted.
His excellent past record camouflaged his poor performances for a considerable period, thereby making him complacent. Being 'dropped' might just help him get back into the groove.