Sporting comebacks are to be celebrated, as though by an unwritten norm. There’s a feel-good allure about those sportsmen, more so if the protagonist is of such feistiness as Harbhajan Singh, who not only imbibed but also embodied the spirit of bouncebackability that was the enduring charm of Indian cricket in the noughties.
But the 34-year-old’s inclusion for the one-off Bangladesh Test has polarised opinions, from being perceived as a retrograde move to a more sentimental view of giving one of India’s finest performers a last shot at redeeming a career that has surprisingly regressed in the last four years. The latter was staunchly denied by the chairman of selectors, Sandeep Patil. A more regulated version was that it reflected India’s paucity of quality spinners purveying in the domestic circuit. Even a few toxic conspiracy theories flew around.
India do need a second spinner, especially in a season set in the subcontinent. Pragyan Ojha, post action-tweak, has been bland. Ravindra Jadeja has tailed off, and in fairness his craft has seldom seemed suitable for the longest version. Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla have fallen of the radar,.
But was Harbhajan the solution? True, he expressed a “burning desire” to launch a comeback bid, despite knowing age wasn’t on his side and the selectors hell-bent on auditioning younger spinners. However, his domestic returns haven’t matched his will. In the most recent season, he took just six wickets in three matches. The year before, he was more influential, snaring 22 wickets at 24.09 in five matches. The IPL numbers in the span were shinier—24 in 2013, 14 in 2014 and 16 this year. But summoning a spinner for Tests based on his T20 exploits barely cuts logic. Also, there were off-spinners more productive than him this season, like Tamil Nadu’s Malolan Rangarajan (36 @ 28.75) and Assam’s Swarupam Purkayastha (36 @ 17.52).
Maybe, the selectors felt India’s bowling unit was a little uncut and required a leader to groom them. Harbhajan fits the mould, not just in terms of his vast experience but also with his passionate persona. “The experience he brings in is awesome. He can help develop young bowlers. He has bowled sensibly in the last IPL but I would have preferred the inclusion of a young spinner. But it’s a great opportunity for one of India’s all-time great bowlers to contribute for a few more years,” opined former spinner Maninder Singh.
It would be interesting to see how Virat Kohli uses him. In his last few Tests, Harbhajan seemed he had lacked his captain’s trust, best validated by the way he was handled in the Mumbai Test against England, the third last Test of his career. In a Test India opened with two spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ojha, on a strip affording sharp turn and bounce, he was introduced as late as the 25th over. By that time, England had breezed off to 52 for 0 and Harbhajan was promptly in containment mode. In his last two Test as well, he was mostly introduced much later than Ashwin and some of the field placements too were ultra defensive.
But Kohli, unlike his predecessor, seems more aggressive. “Every spinner needs the captain’s confidence, a captain who doesn’t put pressure on him to take wickets, a captain who deals with him patiently. Hopefully, Kohli would use him wisely,” said Maninder.
Like Harbhajan, a few others too want to resurrect their dipping careers. Shikhar Dhawan is desperate for runs, but it’s unlikely that he will be preferred to KL Rahul, centurion in Sydney. But Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma, both having endured indifferent outings in England and Australia, wouldn’t be short on motivation either. Pointless a one-off series might look, but there are careers on the line, nonetheless.
Bangladesh’s Dangerous 5
Shakib Al Hasan
One of the best all-rounders around, Shakib is widely considered as Bangladesh’s greatest ever cricketer. In January this year, he became the first cricketer to occupy the No 1 spot in all three formats at the same time in his discipline (all-rounder). With the bat, he can play match-winning knocks, and he is equally handy with his left-arm spin. The left-hander has also proved his worth in the IPL, having played a significant role in KKR’s title triumph last year.
The skipper and wicketkeeper-batsman has been one of the stars for Bangladesh. The 28-year-old first broke into the Test side as an 18-year-old, and since then, has evolved into a consistent player for them in all formats of the game. He has an impressive record against India too, and struck a match-winning 56 in that famous win at the 2007 World Cup. Since being removed as ODI captain in September last year, Mushfiqur has averaged 56.23 in 14 ODIs with a century and six fifties.
The hard-hitting opener averages a creditable 32.76 against India in ODIs, and his significant innings include the 51 in the 2007 World Cup victory and the 99-ball 79 in the 2012 Asia Cup. The 26-year-old is also in a rich vein of form, having made back-to-back ODI centuries and a record-breaking Test double hundred in the recent home series against Pakistan. The latter knock made him only the second Test double centurion for Bangladesh.
The diminutive youngster has made the No 3 spot in Tests his own and has racked up impressive numbers since his Test debut in 2013 — 1380 runs in 14 matches at a whooping average of 60. Recently, the stylish southpaw equalled Sir Vivian Richards’ record of 50-plus scores in 11 consecutive Tests, and will look to continue his form against India. He hasn’t been as prolific in the shorter formats though.
Hossain has the ability to bowl at 140kmph consistently, besides having a dangerous yorker. Like Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga, he has a slingshot action and is a tricky customer even on flat tracks. Hossain was one of the stars of Bangladesh’s recent World Cup win over England, picking 4/23, including two in the penultimate over. He also troubled Indian batsmen in the quarterfinal between the teams.
4 Indians with a point to prove in the series
Cheteshwar Pujara | Test only
After a meteoric rise in the Test arena, Pujara has struggled of late. Found out by the pace and bounce in England last year, he bounced back with scores of 90 and 100 during a county stint for Derbyshire. However, the good run didn’t last as he kept throwing away starts in Australia to make just 201 runs at 34 in three Tests, before being dropped for the last game. The one-off Test against Bangladesh offers him a chance to return to his prolific ways.
Rohit Sharma | Test & ODIs
Having led Mumbai Indians to the title in IPL-8, Rohit will be high on confidence. Under the stylish right-hander, Mumbai turned things around after a poor start, and Rohit himself hit a half-century in the final. The 28-year-old, known both for his ability to produce extraordinary innings and a tendency to self-destruct on crucial occasions, had a quiet Test series in Australia before doing well in the World Cup.
Ishant Sharma | Test only
The tall pacer has done far better than expected in Tests in recent times. He was one of the architects of India’s victory at Lord’s last year, and followed it up a decent show in the four-Test series Down Under. The good shows in the longest format earned him a World Cup spot, but he missed the tournament due to a knee injury. Likely to lead the bowling in the one-off Test, Ishant will want to prove that he is back to his best.
Harbhajan Singh | Test only
The veteran off-spinner, who last played Test cricket in 2013, will hope to make his presence felt against Bangladesh. Bhajji was in superb form in this year’s IPL, picking up 18 wickets in 16 games, but played just three Ranji games last season, for a haul of six wickets with a best of 3 for 51. Experts have reckoned that the presence of a number of left-handers in the Bangladesh Test squad could help Harbhajan’s cause.