For a skipper who wears the rebel tag on his sleeve, Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra should be natural allies. Virat Kohli believes in playing aggressively, and his ‘play to win’ push philosophy shone through in the very first Test he led. His counterattack in Adelaide almost toppled the Aussies before a late collapse saw India lose narrowly.
However, it remains to be seen how far selecting two senior spinners can be part of that aggressive approach. Harbhajan Singh, 35, was brought back into the Test eleven for the lone Bangladesh Test last month, after two years. Just when everyone thought that one half of the famed Bhajji-Kumble strike force was on the wane, he was recalled with Kohli giving him full backing. Three wickets in Fatullah didn’t make a difference due to poor weather.
While Harbhajan is India’s third highest wicket-taker, only behind Anil Kumble and Kapil Dev, Mishra has managed to play only 13 Tests, for modest returns (43 scalps). What is common for both though is that they need assurance from the skipper and team management to keep going and produce their best. That was not always the case with Mishra in the past.
Few good men
Sri Lanka will test Indian spinners, and R Ashwin as well as the more experienced duo will have their task cut out. But it also raises questions about how healthy India’s spin department is and whether selectors were forced to pick to bowlers into their 30s.
Leg-spinner Karn Sharma didn’t look assured on debut in Australia on the tour before the World Cup and he is 27. Left-arm Axar Patel is still learning the ropes in limited-overs game. Contrast this with Pakistan, who found leg-spinner Yasir Shah in Saeed Ajmal’s forced absence due to his travails with a suspect action. Shah was brilliant, guiding Pakistan to the recent Test series victory.
Former India spinner, Maninder Singh, felt the selectors’ decision smacked of desperation. "It is a wake up call for the BCCI," he told HT. "The Board should have picked 10-12 fast bowlers, spinners and batsmen, nurtured them and then got in former players to polish their skill."
The gap in talent was evident as Harbhajan and Mishra would have otherwise struggled to get in. "Now there is no competition," Maninder said, blaming IPL for a changed mentality among aspiring spinners. The BCCI academies have not really helped unearth any major talent down the years either.
Yuzvendra Chahal, 25, a Haryana leg-spinner like Mishra, didn’t even get a mention, which surprised Maninder. While IPL has been a selection criterion, RCB’s Chahal finishing as the third highest wicket-taker this season (23) seems to have been ignored.
"I love his run-up, his action. But he was not included for Zimbabwe or even India A. He should have been in the scheme of things."
India’s spinners will have to fret about bowling quicker on Sri Lanka’s slow pitches. The selectors should be worried about finding quality spinners in the first place.