This seems to be the season for retirements – and comebacks. On the one hand we have had the likes of Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison, Tillekeratne Dilshan and Sachin Tendulkar announcing their retirements and on the other hand we have had several players either making a successful comeback or at least taking the first step towards a return to the national team.
Restricting ourselves to India, Yuvraj Singh has illustrated that he has lost nothing of his swashbuckling batting skills and his ability to simply mow down even the best of bowling when he is on song. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are on the comeback trail and haven’t done badly so far. The left handed opener has got centuries in the county championship and for India A against West Indies A.
Sehwag, who could be a serious candidate for the middle order now that Tendulkar will be retiring after playing his 200th Test next month, hasn’t had a hundred but he has performed reasonably well to remain in contention despite the challenge from the young brigade, the most prominent being Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma.
Another player bidding for a return to the national squad is Zaheer Khan and he hasn’t exactly disappointed. Leaner and fitter, the long time Indian pace spearhead who turned 35 last week is not yet ready to ride off into the sunset despite the challenge posed by several young men like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Jaidev Unadkat, not to mention Ishant Sharma who is still hanging in there just about.
Despite the plethora of young talent around and with the selectors adopting a clear cut youth policy, cricketers who were once stars and superstars have the right to challenge them on the field of play with a run of impressive performances.
In this connection it must be said that the Sandeep Patil-led selection committee was more than fair in picking Sehwag, Gambhir and Zaheer for the A team that figured in the three match series against West Indies A. Generally the A team consists of up and coming players but realizing that the trio are eager to make a comeback into the national squad, they were given an opportunity to show that they are still good enough for a recall.
And then of course there is Harbhajan Singh who not only wants to come back to the Indian team but has also spoken of adding substantially to his wicket tally. The off spinner did not figure in the A series but he did come good in the Champions League final picking up three wickets in an over that effectively changed the course of the match in favour of Mumbai Indians. But his recent first class experience has been restricted to the rain-hit Duleep Trophy semifinal between North zone and East zone.
It must be said that among all the players on the comeback trail, Harbhajan faces the toughest task by way of competition. For one thing, Ravichandran Ashwin is entrenched as the No 1 spin bowler in the land. Utility man Ravindra Jadeja has exhibited his bowling prowess more than once and is second in line.
Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla have done enough to be in serious consideration for a place in the squad. And one cannot ignore the chances of the young brigade comprising Pervez Rasool, Rahul Sharma and Shahbaz Nadeem among others.
So where does all this leave Harbhajan? Out in the cold one may presume. While competitions like the IPL and the just concluded Champions League may not be the correct yardstick to judge a player’s ability in the long run, a series of wicket taking acts does help in boosting one’s confidence and keep the player in the eyes of those who matter – in this case the selection committee.
Admittedly Harbhajan has not done much in this respect leaving one to wonder whether the feisty, ultra competitive sardar has not lost some of his enthusiasm of old. He may still be only 33 but one must not forget that he started his international career at 17 and more than 15 years is a long time and the keenness is difficult to sustain especially when one is not particularly successful.
Is it the end of the road then for Harbhajan? To be candid he has been given a rather long rope in recent times. With Ashwin, Ojha and Jadeja around for the Tests against England and Australia last season, there seemed little chance of a Harbhajan comeback. Sentiment rather than practical reasons led to the off spinner being picked to play his 100th Test.
But an unimpressive tally of seven wickets for 288 runs in three Tests did not further his cause particularly with the other three spin bowlers Ashwin, Ojha and Jadeja doing much better. He was dropped midway through the series against Australia, which given his record against that country especially in India would have been unthinkable in the past.
There is no denying the fact that there has been a steady decline in Harbhajan’s average and strike rate over the years. From a peak of 27 in 2006 his average is now 32. True, he is among only eleven bowlers who have taken over 400 wickets in Test cricket but his average is the worst.
Overall his figures - 413 wickets from 101 matches – are impressive but the vast majority of them were taken in the first decade of the new millennium during which he was at his most devastating. As regards limited overs cricket, he has evidently passed his shelf life having played his last ODI in June 2011 and his last T-20 international exactly a year ago.
Could he then make another comeback to the Test scene? The sentimental scenario has already been played out, so Harbhajan, if and when he returns, will have to make it purely on performance. Given what we have seen over the last couple of years – the steady decline in his bowling, the number of spin bowling options available, the selectors adopting a far sighted youth policy - it could well be that Harbhajan has played his last Test.