With india having fought valiantly to level the series in Galle, and live to fight another day, it’s almost as though the series has begun afresh as the two teams left the sleepy seaside town of Galle and returned to capital Colombo.
While India had many heroes at Galle, none larger than Virender Sehwag and none more exciting than Ishant Sharma, the attention now shifts to Harbhajan Singh. With Anil Kumble being off the boil in the last few Tests he has played — he has only 10 wickets from five Tests since Perth — it has fallen upon Harbhajan to lead the spin attack.
For some time now Harbhajan has lacked the bite and turn that made him virtually unplayable in 2001 against Australia where he picked 32 wickets from three Tests. Was it that he lacked confidence and was happy keeping one end tight while Kumble attacked?
Had punishment in ODIs gotten to him so badly that he erred on the side of caution and bowled flat rather than aim for wickets? There were many questions and few answers but through it all, the team backed Harbhajan.
You only have to go back to the Andrew Symonds incident to see just how the team rallied around their man. While the off-field action papered over the fact that Harbhajan had an ordinary Test series, picking up only eight wickets in three Tests, he did come back strongly in the ODIs.
Being called an ‘obnoxious little weed’ by Matthew Hayden paved the way for Harbhajan to turn his anger into a potent force on the field.
In the ODIs Harbhajan licked his lips with relish, effecting the dismissals of Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds in both finals. Just as that controversies died down, and he was settling into his groove came Slapgate.
He lost his cool with Sreesanth at the end of an IPL match and essayed the costliest slap in cricket history, ending up forfeiting close to 3 crore in fees. There were question marks over his future and his return from a five-match ban was keenly watched.
If doubts lingered over whether the offie had it in him to be a major force, they were erased over the course of the last Test. In a situation where India desperately needed to win, without the luxury of a huge total on the board, Harbhajan set to work.
The stiff breeze bowling across worked in his favour. Harbhajan adjusted his pace, varied his angles and was relentlessly at the batsmen. With wickets falling at regular intervals, he was able to employ fielders close in and crank up the pressure. Harbhajan ended with figures of 10 for 153, and for the first time in his career had a ten-wicket bag overseas. While this will go some way in forgetting Slapgate, it is from here on that the challenge gets greater.
India have a packed Test schedule coming up and it will be interesting to see how Kumble holds up. Kumble, already 37, will retire some time over the next two years, and when that happens there will be a huge void to fill.
Whenever that moment comes, Harbhajan needs to be in peak fitness and wicket-taking rhythm. For then it will be time for him to pay back his teammates faith.
For now, though, the task on hand is to ensure that the gains of Galle are not squandered at Colombo. India have only once beaten Sri Lanka in a Test series here and they now have a good chance of repeating that. For that to happen, many vital gears have to engage at the same time, and one of them is the tempestuous offspinner.