Why Harbhajan Singh's selection is justified for the Bangladesh tour
As India gear up to face Bangladesh in a single test from June 10-14, the big talking point has been the inclusion of Harbhajan Singh after a two-year gap. He last played for India in March 2013 in the famous series where India blanked Australia 4-0.
Harbhajan was dropped after the 2011 England tour where India lost 4-0 and he got injured in the second Test of that series after which he returned home. He had a poor series with an average of 143.5 and an economy rate of 4.11. He was then recalled for the solitary Test against England on a Mumbai minefield where India played three spinners. He eked out two wickets and conceded 84 runs.
He was then dropped for the next two Tests and returned for the first two Tests of the Australia series. The first game at Chennai was his 100th Test and he also played the next one at Hyderabad after which he was again dropped, for good it seemed at that time. He picked five wickets in those two matches at an average of 40.8. By contrast, Ashwin picked 18 at an average of 16.77 and Ravindra Jadeja picked 11 wickets at an average of 19.
Harbhajan’s Ranji performances
It’s instructive to look at the best performing spinners in first class cricket in the two seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15) after Harbhajan was dropped to understand the rationale behind his recall. The highest wicket taker in the 2013-14 season among spinners was Vishal Dabholkar who got 39 wickets at an average of 26.76. Harbhajan picked 22 at an average of 24.09.
The highest wicket taker in the last Ranji season among spinners was Swarupam Purkayastha, an off spinner from Assam who plays in Group C which is comprised of the weakest teams in the Ranji Trophy. He picked 36 wickets at an average of 17.52; but he mostly played on spin friendly tracks against average batsmen.
Harbhajan did not have the best season as he picked only 6 wickets in three games at an average of 42.50. He mostly played on green tracks though; which was something he criticised vociferously during the Ranji season. However, when you weigh in the experience that Harbhajan provides, it clearly is a no brainer as to why he is picked.
Gunning for Kumble’s record
At 34, this might well be his last chance to make a mark and fix a spot for himself in the team under the new Test captain, Virat Kohli. While the IPL is not the best barometer to judge how a bowler will be bowling in five-day cricket, Harbhajan did flight the ball more than he usually does and reaped the rewards. His best spell came in the first Qualifier where he flummoxed MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina, two of the best players of spin in India.
Harbhajan has played three Tests in Bangladesh and picked up six wickets at an average of 48. While those figures are poor, Bangladesh played as many as 5 left handers in their top seven in their last Test. An off spinner turning the ball away will be a handful for them. In the latest series that Bangladesh played against Pakistan, Mohammad Hafeez, a part time off spinner, picked up six wickets at an average of 24.16, which was the best among the Pakistan bowlers.
With Bangladesh’s top order being full of left handers, Ravichandran Ashwin and Harbhajan might make a potent combination on a track which generally assists spinners. The fact that only two spinners finished in the top 10 wicket takers in the previous two Ranji trophy seasons made the selectors’ job easier as there is a clear dearth of quality spin in the country.
The major cause for this seems to be that more and more pitches are turning out to be friendly to pacers, meaning that spinners don’t get much of a bowl. In fact, Harbhajan only bowled 87.5 overs in five innings this year.
The series is a golden opportunity for Harbhajan to cement his place in the team with an entire international season at the sub-continent coming up. He already has 265 wickets at home in Test cricket and would want to finish his career with 300 wickets at home; a feat only accomplished by Anil Kumble among Indian bowlers.