March 13, 2013

Why's Ojha not playing against Australia?

There may be plenty of left-hand batsmen in the opposition, but it still doesn't make sense to leave your best bowler out of the side

What are a bowler's chances of selection if he boasts five-wicket hauls in consecutive Test matches on his way to a total of 20 wickets in a series? If he's fit, his name should be the first on the team sheet for the next series, right? Wrong.

In India this year, such a bowler, quite inexplicably, failed to find a place in the playing XI for the two Test matches following the series in which he took all those wickets.

The conditions must have changed drastically? No, for not only were the next two Test matches played in the same country but on similar pitches. While other spinners have done most of the bowling in the two matches in question, this spinner, the top performer from the last series, has sat on the sidelines, waiting for his next chance. As some of the other bowlers have run in over after over, looking pale and listless, the reasons for benching this man have grown ever more baffling.

The player thus sidelined is Pragyan Ojha of course. When most of his team members failed miserably against England, he held his own, giving India a fighting chance. To add insult to injury, not only did most of the players who fell short in that series retain their spots in the squad, they also walked into the playing XI ahead of Ojha. Even players who were dropped in the middle of that series for their poor showing have now found favour ahead of him.

Since cricket is a team game and players ought to be sacrificed at the altar of the team cause when necessary, let us try to look objectively at the likely reasons for his omission.

The Australian batting line-up currently touring India has far too many left-handers, and so India should be playing spinners who take the ball away from them. This perhaps is why Harbhajan Singh has been called back in spite of not having set the world on fire in domestic cricket after he was dropped following the second Test match against England in Mumbai. While this theory sounds good on paper, it doesn't hold much water in practice. And if it was to be applied uniformly, why wasn't Ashwin rested during the series against England? They didn't have too many left-handers. And would it not have made sense to play a legspinner, Amit Mishra, against a team that has traditionally struggled against legspinners?

Horses for courses is all very well but I believe it's imperative to play your best bowlers at all times. Ojha and Ashwin were India's best spinners coming into the England series, which was why it was wise to continue with them. Good bowlers are good bowlers regardless of the kind of batsmen in the opposition.

One doesn't hear of teams packed with left-handers to defy the opponents' legspinners or left-arm spinners. Unfortunately the same models of judgement aren't employed when picking bowlers

Moreover, left-armers and legspinners can make the most of the rough against left-hand batsmen, for the ball comes into the batsman after pitching in the rough. If the ball is going away, batsmen can safely leave or pad it away. But that's a luxury you can't afford when the ball is coming back into your body: padding becomes a difficult proposition and offering a shot could lead to a bat-pad opportunity on the leg side. Shane Warne, by his own admission, relished bowling to left-handers a lot more than he did to right-handers on wilting pitches.

If the Indian team was looking for someone who could bat at No. 6 and also bowl a bit of spin, there isn't a better man than Ravindra Jadeja in the country. He has scored a few triple-hundreds in first-class cricket, and his fast and accurate left-arm spin can be very effective on subcontinental pitches. But it so happens that he isn't batting at No. 6, for MS Dhoni has made that spot his own, at least for now. If the plan was to play two offies, Ashwin and Harbhajan, and have a reasonably good batsman at No. 7, Ashwin could have done that job. He was third on India's batting averages list in Australia, and second in the home series against England. He has the right technique and the temperament to be an allrounder who bats at seven or eight. Also, Harbhajan Singh, who has Test hundreds, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who has a decent first-class batting record, have added enough lower-order teeth to the batting order. So your best bowler's batting ability, or lack of it, should not have been a criterion for his selection in the XI.

In professional cricket, teams hardly ever change their batsmen to counter a certain kind of bowling attack from the opposition. One doesn't hear of teams packed with left-handers to defy the opponents' legspinners or left-arm spinners. That would make for a defensive mindset and betray your lack of security in your skills. Unfortunately the same models of judgement aren't employed when picking bowlers.

In an ideal world, Ojha's would have been the first name on the team sheet. The toss-up was always between the other three spinners. Unfortunately that's not how it played out.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here