By Nishad Pai Vaidya
One man’s misery could be another man’s opportunity.
Ravichandran Ashwin finds himself in a situation where he can push his case to become India’s frontline spinner in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) as the struggling Harbhajan Singh is out injured.
The Tamil Nadu off-spinner has been in the Indian limited-overs set-up for more than a year, but he is yet to cement his place in the eleven. Harbhajan’s presence has meant that he has had to warm the bench whenever India went into a game with just one spinner. Even in the few occasions a second spinner has been picked, Ashwin has lost out. During the World Cup, Piyush Chawla was preferred ahead of Ashwin in a few games and on the West Indies tour; Amit Mishra partnered Harbhajan in the first three ODIs. Ashwin’s opportunities to wear the India jersey have thus been few and far in between. But whenever he has got the opportunity to play for India he has shown that he can trouble the batsmen and that he is a genuine wicket-taker.
Harbhajan seems to have lost his wicket-taking ability in recent times. His lack of guile and deception required to pick wickets is very evident in Test cricket where one cannot survive by just containing the batsmen. In ODIs, Harbhajan may have camouflaged his inability a touch by restricting the scoring and the odd wicket, courtesy a batsman trying to accelerate the scoring. But the fact remains that Harbhajan isn’t the same attacking bowler he was a few years ago.
The ODI series against England is a golden opportunity for Ashwin to make himself India’s No 1 spinner. Harbhajan is out injured and Mishra hasn’t impressed in the Test matches. The England batsmen looked at ease while playing Mishra as they hammered him in the Test series. As discussed in one of my previous articles, not many English batsmen have played Ashwin as most of them do not play in the Indian Premier League (IPL). He can be a surprise weapon as he isn’t the easiest bowler to pick especially if you are playing him for the first time. His carom ball can be his biggest tool of deception against the English batsmen. Thus, for the ODI series, Ashwin should play ahead of Mishra simply because of the surprise element.
Ashwin should use this opportunity to make a big impression on the Indian selectors. He has bowled exceptionally well in the IPL, but the real challenge before him is to cement a place in the Indian team. If he does very well in England, it may put Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the selectors in a spot once Harbhajan is fit. Harbhajan’s reputation may have kept him in the team for quite some time, but one cannot hide the fact that his lack of penetration is hurting India. If you have another off-spinner who can get you wickets, restrict the flow of runs and tease the batsmen, then he should be chosen over someone who isn’t fulfilling his role.
Ten years ago, Harbhajan burst on to the scene with a brilliant series against Australia. He looked menacing as he teased the batsmen with his turn and flight. Such was his impact that he kept Anil Kumble out of the ODI eleven on many an occasion in the early 2000s. Kumble’s stature and reputation wasn’t a consideration as the captain Sourav Ganguly chose to play Harbhajan simply because he looked more threatening. If a bowler like Kumble could be kept out by a bowler much junior to him, there is no reason why Harbhajan shouldn’t face the same fate. If Ashwin shines in England, Dhoni should take a leaf out of Ganguly’s book.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")