He bowled an extended spell, batted with characteristic freedom, and even went through fielding drills. But still, Harbhajan Singh's participation was the talk of Chandigarh with two days to go for the first Test. The off-spinner is an integral part of India's plans, and a troublesome calf is making his race to fitness a difficult one.
The injury, on his left leg, is unrelated from the calf strain he picked up in Sri Lanka, as that was on the right leg, and is believed to be a result of wear and tear. While he has certainly not been ruled out of playing, the threat of aggravating the problem further made the decision of when to take rest a tricky one.
As is well known now, Harbhajan usually comes up with his best against Australia, and this is understandable given his 32-wicket haul that included a hat-trick back in 2001.
The Australians, for sure, are preparing on the basis that Harbhajan will play. “I am very confident Harbhajan will play. I saw him bowling yesterday after the end of day's play and I know how much he loves playing against Australia,” said Michael Clarke, the vice-captain. “So I'm pretty confident he will play. I will be very surprised if he doesn't play. I am going to be preparing like he is going to. But of course, if he doesn’t play it’s a huge plus for us. He’s a very good bowler and he has had a lot of success against Australia."
It's not merely off-spin that Harbhajan brings to the plate. During Australia's last tour of India, Harbhajan shared a vital partnership with Zaheer Khan in the Bangalore Test, and this has left an impression on the visitors. “If the first ball is there to be hit for four or six, Harbhajan will probably try and do that. I think he is quite carefree in his batting,” said Clarke. “He just sees the ball and hits it. Batting lower down the order gives him the freedom to do that too. But he has had success with his style, not only against the Australians but also against all teams in all forms of the game. But we will certainly be more concerned about his bowling than his batting."
If Harbhajan doesn't play, the match referee will certainly breathe easier, for his intense manner often ends in sharp words being exchanged on the field. “I think certain players like that confrontation. There are guys like this in all the teams who perform better with that kind of confrontation,” explained Clarke. “But I know how good a bowler he is so I will be more focused on trying to counter what comes out his hand and try my best to adapt to that. He's always tough to face, always a great challenge and I really enjoy facing him because I think he is one of the best spinners in the world.”