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Bhajji’s Comeback: A Deserved Selection or an IPL Call?

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Harbhajan_Singh_India_cricket_IPL_Mumbai_IndiansComeback series? Farewell series? A-time-for-rest series? These questions hovered about the squad selection for the upcoming Bangladesh tour. Truth be told, it is difficult to judge the importance of this trip. Coming on the back of a long overseas schedule, the ODI World Cup and the IPL, it almost seems an unnecessary venture.

In fact, it was a bargaining chip for the once-mighty ex-president of the BCCI to garner votes for his ICC chairmanship, and it was almost cancelled on his behest as he fought over petty issues in Melbourne with the ex-ICC president from Bangladesh. That the current regime of the BCCI decided to go ahead with the tour says a lot about N Srinivasan’s standing in the current scheme of things.

At the same time, it allows Bangladesh to dream big. They are flying high after an impressive World Cup performance (it is safe to assume some of their fans are still hurting from that no-ball debate). They have beaten a redeveloping Pakistan side with great confidence recently. Defeat in Bangladesh will not be easy to bear, and the ODI tour to Zimbabwe in mid-July can be utilized to rest seniors and blood youngsters.

In that light it came as a pleasant surprise to see that a full-strength side will tour Bangladesh, with neither Virat Kohli nor MS Dhoni resting up. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t any shockers in this team announcement, and no, one isn’t talking about chairman of selectors Sandeep Patil’s rare press conference afterwards.

Perhaps the first surprise – doesn’t qualify as a shock – was that the same World Cup squad was retained for the ODI leg. You would think there might have been a couple changes to accommodate younger faces, although it is understandable given that it is a one-off ODI series.

The second pointer – qualified somewhere between surprise and shock – was the absence of Ravindra Jadeja from the Test squad. The ‘all-rounder’ has been a key member of the team under Dhoni, but he hasn’t hit the performance mark that has been expected of him in doing so, certainly not as a lead spinner ahead of R Ashwin. It is no surprise that the new Test skipper is ready to look in a different direction for his spin options.

This is where the real shocker comes in, and his name is Harbhajan Singh. His last Test was over two years ago – against Australia in Hyderabad – and it was the 101st match of his once glorious career. Since then he has often talked about his desire to make a comeback to the national fold, much like other ‘dropped’ players of his generation.

Most of this chatter comes forth during the IPL season, for PR machinery of the franchises works overtime to get spotlight on their over-priced players. At the time of writing, Mumbai Indians had just finished celebrating their come-from-behind triumph, with Bhajji playing a handsome hand in capturing their second title. Five days before Rohit Sharma got his hands on the IPL trophy, the powers that be handed ‘the Turbanator’ his much-desired comeback to the Indian Test team.

For the 34-year-old rank old-timer, this is a second lease of life undoubtedly. Assuming he gets to play at Fatullah, if he can put in a remotely decent performance, then India play another seven Tests against Sri Lanka and South Africa in similar conditions this autumn. The figure might even go up to ten, if the Indian government approves the Pakistan series. But does he deserve to be in contention, or indeed this selection?

 

Truth be told, he has had quite a decent outing this IPL season. He has picked up 18 wickets in 15 matches at an average of 24.77 and scored 117 runs too, inclusive of one half-century. That puts him at eighth on the top wicket-takers’ listing in the 2015 IPL. The obvious question here is, on what basis have the selectors made this decision? Is bowling four overs every alternate day criterion enough for the rigours of Test cricket, even for someone who boasts of 413 Test wickets?

 

It was outlined in Patil’s press conference that they felt the need for an extra off-spinner in the squad. That perhaps explains why Yuzvendra Chahal’s 23 wickets were ignored. But there can be no doubt that Bhajji’s IPL form is the lone basis for his recall. Ever since he was dropped from the Test team, he hasn’t done much to warrant a comeback. In the 2013-14 season, he picked up 22 wickets in 5 matches (avg. 24.09) whilst in the recent season (2014-15) he played only 3 matches picking up 6 wickets (avg. 42.5). Those must have been some stupendous six wickets!

Needless to say this sends out a wrong signal to all concerned. Earlier, IPL performances were considered to throw youngsters in the limited-overs mix, that too intermittently. In a way, the selectors protected the sanctity of Test cricket with regards to selection. This sets a dangerous precedent.

Not to mention, it disheartens the likes of 25-year-old Swarupam Purkayastha. Who is he, you might ask. With 36 wickets in 7 matches at an average of 17.52, he is the top wicket-taking spinner (placed tenth on the top wicket-takers’ list) in the 2014-15 Ranji season, who also had the best bowling figures of the tournament: 29-16-29-8 against Hyderabad. Oh, and he is an off-spinner, like the one the selectors were looking for to support R Ashwin.

Only thing, Purkayastha doesn’t play for an IPL franchise. Does that explain why he wasn’t even in the reckoning when the selectors instead turned to someone who has already had his time on the international stage?



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