Harbhajan Singh

Harbhajan Singh… manna from Heaven. © Getty Images

Harbhajan Singh has been out of the Indian Test squad for over a year. Now, 16 months after his exclusion, he has been recalled by the national selectors, having done little to justify his inclusion. Arunabha Sengupta wonders what the logic was behind this strange inclusion.

Last summer Harbhajan Singh lost his place in the Indian team. He had bowled 13 lacklustre overs stretching across two innings in Trent Bridge, ending with one for 69 for his painstaking efforts.

 

India went on to complete the nightmarish English tour, preferring Amit Mishra as the lone tweaker for the remaining two Tests. Back home on wickets tailor made for home grown spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin was preferred as the off-spinner, and Pragyan Ojha as his left-arm counterpart.

 

It is rare for a bowler with over 400 wickets in Test cricket to be so unceremoniously excluded, but a look at the figures will tell us that the omission could not have been more justified.

 

In his last five Tests, Harbhajan had captured 13 wickets at 43.53. And this had not been a sudden dip. In the one year span between July 2010 and July 2011, Harbhajan had 51 scalps from 15 Tests at 41.15 – pathetic figures, to say the least. Especially when talking about a bowler who had taken over the mantle of the premier spinner from Anil Kumble.

 

What is surprising now is his sudden recall to the squad, because he has done absolutely nothing to redeem himself in the one year and four months spent in wilderness.

 

In the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy match against Hyderabad, he bowled 21 overs for 39 runs without taking a wicket in the first innings. He did capture three in the second innings, but by then, the team had already been announced. There is hardly any way for this performance to have had too much to do with the thinking of the selectors.

 

Since his omission, and before the latest Ranji Trophy tie, Harbhajan had played just eight First-class matches – including a handful of county games for Essex. His figures remained consistently unremarkable – 15 wickets at 41.67, with a best of four for 91 against Glamorgan. On Indian wickets last season, he was taken to the cleaners against Uttar Pradesh, as Suresh Raina blasted a double hundred. Harbhajan then followed it up with another unimpressive display – this time against a struggling Orissa.

 

He did spend a lot of the intervening period playing a gamut of Twenty 20 matches, as is the norm of the day. And although that should not influence Test selection in any way, he finished with six measly wickets at 64 apiece in the Indian Premier League.

 

In fact, his only achievement of sorts in recent times has been the spell of four for 12 in the T20 World Cup, against an English side shaking like a bunch of eleven leaves at the very contemplation of turning deliveries. However, apart from this one supposed high point, even in the T20 arena he has been incredibly inept.

 

Harbhajan’s barren run

M

Wkts

Avge

SR

Overall Tests

98

406

32.22

68.1

Last 15 Tests before being dropped

15

51

41.15

83.3

First-Class matches since omission till getting back into Indian team

8

15

41.67

100.6

 

 

Which leads us to question: If it had indeed been an axe, and not a well-deserved rest, how on earth is he back in the side?

 

The answer may be gleaned from the rather crudely publicised Indian strategy – to have the Englishmen tied up in knots against turning balls on dusty pitches, to extract revenge for the humiliation suffered in Ole Blighty. If playing a third spinner is the main motivation behind reinstating Harbhajan, the move does make some sense.

 

However, it also glaringly underlines the poverty that has struck the erstwhile splendour of our spinning coffers, forcing us to include a spinnerwith such poor returns in the side.

 

Two off-spinners in the team perhaps make sense, given that they are as different as Harbhajan and Ashwin. Amit Mishra’s leg-spinners might have added variety, and his recent First-class record is a notch above Harbhajan’s pathetic numbers. In this season, he has claimed eightwickets in three matches at 29 apiece.

 

Perhaps the selectors are banking on Harbhajan’s immense experience, hoping for a return of the old magic, or banking on the Englishmen to repeat the panic that they showed on facing the turbaned tweaker in the recent T20 encounter.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)