Will the selectors gamble on Harbhajan?
Logic would say that if you go by the India squad selected for the first three ODIs against West Indies, announced on Friday by the national selectors, the chances of Harbhajan Singh being picked for the Tests in Australia can be easily cast aside. Then again, selection is based on more than just logic.
Harbhajan, who was excluded from the home ODIs against England and the Tests against West Indies, had a chance to find form while leading Punjab in the Ranji Trophy. However, just two wickets in three matches, at an astronomical average of 102.00, does not befit India's current highest wicket-taker in Tests, who has been struggling for form since the England tour.
In England, Harbhajan played in the first two Tests and took just two wickets, albeit in non-spinner friendly conditions where even Graeme Swann found it hard to strike consistently. Critics openly voiced a concern about why the selectors were ignoring his lack of form, thereby delaying the entry of R Ashwin into the longer form, especially after Ashwin had shown the character and the boldness with the ball to attack the batsmen in the shorter formats.
An abdominal muscle strain forced Harbhajan to return home early from England. He returned to fitness a month later to lead Mumbai Indians to the Champions League Twenty20 title. However, according to an Indian board official, he was tired.
It is not that Harbhajan is devoid of supporters. Ravi Shastri, former India player-turned-television commentator, has been a leading voice, saying that India need him for his ability to "get under the skin" of the Australia players and his experience of touring the country. For the record, on India's last tour to Australia, in 2007-08, Harbhajan had a tally of eight wickets in three Tests at 61.25. He conceded over 100 runs in an innings three times in that series.
Australia has not exactly been a favourite hunting ground for offspinners, as Swann, the No. 1 spinner in Tests according to the ICC rankings, found out during the last Ashes when he bagged 15 wickets at 39.80 runs apiece, seven of which came in Adelaide.
"You cannot make a selection on an emotional basis," a board source said. The Kris Srikkanth-led selection panel's recent decisions have shown they are willing to dare. The inclusion of Varun Aaron and Rahul Sharma, two players without strong domestic records, are prime examples. The message is clear: one has to perform and reputations do not matter.
Previous tours of Australia have proven fruitful for India players whose careers were thought to be on the wane. Harbhajan's senior partner, Anil Kumble, turned his career around in 2003-04, while Virender Sehwag enjoyed a revival on the next tour, in 2007-08. His inclusion towards the latter half of the tour, from the Perth Test, changed the team's and his own fortunes.
Most of the XV selected for the ongoing Mumbai Test are likely to go to Australia. Rahul Sharma may make way for a five-man pace attack. Zaheer Khan's selection will be provisional, subject to him proving his fitness in Mumbai's Ranji Trophy matches against Orissa (starting November 29) and Saurashtra (December 6). Praveen Kumar, who was excluded for the home Tests against West Indies, is likely to return to join Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron in the pace department.
One of Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel could be picked as the second wicketkeeper. In England, Saha was MS Dhoni's back-up for the Test series while Parthiv played in the one-dayers.
Probable squad: MS Dhoni (capt & wk), Virender Sehwag (vice-capt), Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma/Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha/Parthiv Patel (wk), R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron. In case of 17: Harbhajan Singh
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo