Annoying the opposition

2011 Nov 28 by Suresh Menon

Harbhajan's recent record has been so disappointing that all Ashwin had to do was turn up for the Test series against the West Indies to book his ticket to Australia.

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By Suresh Menon

When two players have roughly equal skill levels in their primary jobs (bowling or batting), then extraneous factors play a role in team selection. And as selection day approaches, you only need to read the newspapers or watch television to see what such factors may be in specific cases. Sometimes the selectors themselves ‘leak’ the story to the media in order to gauge the mood before sitting down to their meeting.

The big debate before the Indian team to Australia was picked was over the off spinner’s slot. More specifically, it was between R Ashwin, the new kid on the block and Harbhajan Singh, veteran of nearly a hundred Test matches.

The pundits all said the same thing: Ashwin may have the edge but Harbhajan has the ability to get under the skin of the Australians. But when did dermatological positioning become an important factor in cricket selection? Harbhajan’s recent record has been so disappointing that all Ashwin had to do was turn up for the Test series against the West Indies to book his ticket to Australia. That he claimed 22 wickets and scored a century meant that the Aussie skin would be Harbhajan-free for the series.

Annoying the opposition has become a part of team tactics, but there is something depressing about the realisation that you could make it to the national team as a specialist in the field. For years, Indians were considered pushovers in this area. When sledged, they smiled, they looked pleadingly at the trouble-maker, they lost their wickets, and in one memorable case, burst into tears.

All that has changed. Today Indians give as good as they get, or as Zaheer Khan did in England some years ago, use the insults to inspire them. Zaheer’s nine-wicket haul in the Nottingham Test which India won was partly in response to the puerile England gesture of throwing jelly beans at the crease when he came into bat.

Aussie captain Steve Waugh called it ‘mental disintegration’, the practice of getting under the opposition’s skin through a combination of verbal abuse and physical intimidation. Bad behaviour by any other name...

Waugh, and others may have been impressed by the pseudo-scientific lingo – an earlier Aussie team under Ian Chappell were known simply as the ‘Ugly Australians’, an image the team has been trying to live down ever since.

Indian players have been picked for the strangest of reasons. Not so long ago, a second wicketkeeper was a certainty on every tour simply because his public relations was superb and he ensured that the seniors in the team were kept happy. Some are picked for fulfilling geographic quotas so the selector from, say, East Zone, could go back to his constituency and claim success.

It would have been an insult to a bowler with over 400 Test wickets if Harbhajan had been included in the tour party for the wrong reasons. His record against Australia is impressive – 90 wickets in 16 Tests at a strike rate that is ten below his overall rate of 68. He is only 31, and despite ruining his chances of leading India with questionable behaviour against both teammates and the opposition, there is a lot of cricket left in him if he bowls himself back into reckoning. He can regain form in the Ranji matches, away from the glare of international cricket, and that’s the best medicine.

The focus in Australia will be on India’s bowling – and in recent years it is not the bowlers but the more celebrated batsmen who have let them down, especially in away matches. Zaheer Khan’s fitness might be the key, but there is also the exciting prospect of a bowling attack with young medium pacers and inexperienced spinners coming to maturity.

There’s nothing like annoying the opposition by claiming five wickets or scoring a century. That old way is still the best way.