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India without Viru and Bhajji
by Partab Ramchand
Jun 17, 2007
The reactions to their omissions have been mixed but let it be said straightaway that the absence of Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh is going to have a major impact on the Indian team in England. How much remains to be seen but the fact is that the two have been among the leading run getters and leading wicket takers over the last half a dozen years. Indeed they made their sensational impact within a few months of each other, Harbhajan taking 32 wickets in three Tests against Australia in early 2001 and Sehwag getting his famous 70-ball 100 against New Zealand in an ODI in Colombo within a few months.

Since then the one with the buccaneering bat and the other with the deceptive doosra have been an integral part of the Indian team in both forms of the game. Really, it must have tested Dilip Vengsarkar and company no end to drop both the players for the tour of UK – and in both forms of the game. But they have taken the step – call it bold, exceptional, a touch of bravado – and now it remains to be seen if the repercussions are felt.

Over the last half a dozen years the two have been an integral part of the Indian team. Starting out in the middle order, Sehwag was pushed to the top slot – incidentally in England in 2002 – and thereafter has wielded his punitive blade to devastating effect.

For someone as artistically – and destructively – gifted as Sehwag the coaching manual remained just a book full of theory and nothing else. He authored his own book on the field of play. Sehwag was a throwback to the pyrotechnic days of Mushtaq Ali and Kris Srikkanth. The same adjectives that were used to describe the swashbuckling exploits of these two cricketers – dazzler, conjurer, cricket’s Errol Flynn, cricket’s Indiana Jones – was applied to Sehwag. But there was one very important difference – the figures associated with this kind of rip-roaring batting approach. Mushtaq Ali averaged 32 from eleven Tests. Srikkanth averaged a trifle under 30 in 43 Tests. The statistics were not unusual. There is always an element of risk in the devil may care approach. The stays at the crease are explosive, electrifying, enthralling - and short. Both Mushtaq and Srikkanth had just two centuries. But here we had Sehwag who at his peak averaged nearly 56 with 12 hundreds – including two double centuries and a triple hundred.

You don’t associate such figures with a cavalier stand and deliver batsman. But that was Sehwag – a law unto himself. Of course his game was tailor made for limited overs cricket but the astonishing aspect was that he applied the same tactics in Test cricket and they came off.

And then it started happening – as it sometimes happens to the best of cricketers. The runs dried up, nothing went right, the bowlers seemed to have sorted him out and Sehwag, as instinctive a cricketer as they come, had no Plan B in place. The career average slid to 49, his place was in danger but with his exalted status in Indian cricket that almost rivaled that of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid the selectors - with the backing of the captain – gave him a long rope. Finally however their patience ran out. Sehwag was dropped from the Test team and then the ODI squad.

So it is time for a period in the wilderness for Sehwag. And as he prepares for a comeback will there be a change in Sehwag’s approach? Will he like Tendulkar eschew risks and certain strokes and try and be more circumspect, more solid? Will he, now chastened after being dropped, alter his style to a comparatively more sober one? That will not be his natural game for Sehwag is a born stroke player, a born entertainer. Why, as recently as last year he came tantalizingly close to getting a century before lunch in a Test against the West Indies – he was 99 to be precise. Indications are that there will be not be any change in Sehwag’s style in the near future and if and when he comes back it will be the same dashing Sehwag that one has appreciated over the last half a dozen years.

As regards the axing of Harbhajan the most significant aspect is the break up – hopefully temporary – of the most successful spin combination since the famous spin quartet broke up in 1979. Together Harbhajan and Anil Kumble has been a destructive combo over the last half a dozen years. Moreover they have loved to bowl in tandem as they have repeatedly said. This is borne out by figures too for on the occasions when one has to bowl without the other the performance has dipped.

Frankly Harbhajan has been a bit unlucky to miss out on the tour. I will be the first to agree with the view that his wicket taking ability has taken a dent in the shorter version of the game and he seems to be concentrating more on restricting whereas he should be India’s match winner now that Kumble has retired. But in Tests he is still too good a bowler to be left out. Why, only in his last two Tests in the West Indies he notched up successive five-wicket hauls the second (five for 13 off just 4.3 overs) being instrumental in India notching up the only victory of the four-match series. Again five years ago in England he headed the Test averages with 12 wickets at 34 apiece from three Tests playing a notable part in India’s only victory in the series.

It’s a little hard on the doughty sardar to be dropped after all this but again in his case he is too clever a bowler to be out of the line up for long. One can already see him taking the first steps towards the comeback trail.

Certainly Indian cricket can only benefit from the return to form of both stalwarts.

 
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