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Five or four, Bhajji to the fore

Through the course of the Test series Harbhajan showed that he has it in him to adapt to the challenges facing him, writes Anand Vasu.

cricket Updated: Aug 24, 2008 01:45 IST
Anand Vasu

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was candid enough to admit that he had misread the pitch in Dambulla, but perhaps he only allowed himself that luxury because India managed to pull off a series-levelling win.

In Dambulla India managed to win, not because of some strategic coup, but because late injuries had forced Dhoni's hand both in terms of team composition and in deciding to bowl first. To India's credit, Zaheer Khan bowled exceptionally well, was competently supported and enough batsmen showed the gumption needed to overhaul the target.

But Dambulla is now history. India can't bank on its quick men as much in trying conditions of the R Premadasa Stadium, and that shifts onus to deliver to Harbhajan Singh.

With the think tank still undecided on the combination - seven batsmen and four bowlers or six batsmen and five bowlers - the jury is still out on whether Pragyan Ojha will get back into the mix. But whether he has Ojha for support or not, Harbhajan will have to step things up a gear.

As a senior spinner, the offie will have to play a dual role, depending on the circumstances in which he is brought on to bowl. Should the Sri Lankan openers, Jayasuriya and Sangakkara, make the most of the hard new ball and get off to a fluent start, then Harbhajan will have to exert control over the game, and wrest the initiative back. If the medium-pacers manage to grab the prized early breakthroughs, then Harbhajan will have to attack the incoming batsmen ruthlessly, ensuring that partnerships are not allowed to develop.

Through the course of the Test series Harbhajan showed that he has it in him to adapt to the challenges facing him. If you had to look for a weakness, it would be the bowler's reluctance to operate from around the stumps, but that is a less significant factor in the 50-over game. Harbhajan showed that he has the mental toughness to take a beating bravely, and the imagination to take crucial wickets. With 173 ODIs, in which 191 wickets have come his way, Harbhajan is experienced enough and doesn't need to be reminded of the importance of his role.

But cricket is never about one man alone, and though Harbhajan has a crucial role to play, the other bowlers - whoever they may be - will need to work around him. India's batting has shown some improvement in terms of tackling Ajantha Mendis and Muralitharan, and they will be keen to show that real progress has been made.

For Sri Lanka, the only pressure is that of defending a solid reputation at home. Their team wears a set look, with just one change on the cards. Chaminda Vaas, who sat out the last match with a hamstring twinge, is fit to play once more, and will displace Dilhara Fernando, who was distinctly off the boil. Vaas, who has 399 wickets, is on the verge of becoming only the fourth bowler in history after Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Muttiah Muralitharan to pick up 400 scalps.

India, who practised in the morning on Friday and had optional nets in the afternoon on Saturday, have not experienced the conditions under lights first hand. Whether this will hurt them in any way, won't remain unknown for too long. On Sunday, with a large crowd expected, when the lights come on, the glare will be firmly on the visitors. If they can respond with tough, determined cricket, the series will be thrown wide open and will come truly alive.