The Afro-Asia Cup might have been a largely pointless exercise, with not much to play for apart from personal milestones and prize money, but within the big picture there were smaller battles, points to prove and eyes to catch.
Since 2006, Harbhajan Singh has taken 36 wickets in 32 ODIs at an average of 36 per wicket, far more expensive than his career average of 32. Since the Champions Trophy in October 2006, Harbhajan's form has worsened as 14 wickets in 17 ODIs at nearly 50 apiece testify. He's lost his drift, is bowling much flatter and it's apparent that he's looking to contain rather than take wickets. Harbhajan went wicketless the 2007 World Cup and was dropped from both the one-day and Test squads for the tour of Bangladesh in May.
With the selection meeting for the tour of Ireland and England scheduled for June 12, the Afro-Asia Cup was Harbhajan's last chance to stake a claim. The first game in Bangalore was played on a hard green pitch and Harbhajan was carted around for 53 in his ten overs. His only victim, Thomas Odoyo, was caught right on the boundary-line when he was going for broke. Harbhajan was dropped from the XI for the next match in Chennai. Nobody could complain.
Injuries to Zaheer Khan and Odoyo presented him with another opportunity today. The conditions were not ideal, a flat batting pitch, teams packed with big hitters and an alarming succession of 300-plus totals. He was brought on in the 18th over, after AB de Villiers and Vusi Sibanda had added 117 for the first wicket. Predictably, he began bowling a restrictive line and went for just five off his first over. Sibanda charged down the pitch in his second over and lofted him over long-on for six but Harbhajan came back well, varying his length and conceding only one more from his next five balls. His first spell ended there, two overs that cost 12.
He returned in the 26th over for an encouraging second spell in which he snared 2 for 21 in six overs, of which 12 came off two sixes. What was noticeable was that he was tossing it up more. Even more heartening was the doosra starting to rip. It was the doosra that brought him his first wicket. The ball was pitched on off, Steve Tikolo lunged forward playing for the offspinner and dragged his back foot out of the crease. The ball spun away from the outside edge and Dhoni whipped off the bails in a trice.
His second was more owing to Dhoni's agile wicketkeeping than the bowler's guile. Harbhajan pitched the ball on middle, Mark Boucher came down the track and tried to work it through midwicket, the ball turned and rapped Boucher on the pad before bobbing up to Dhoni on the legside. He broke the stumps once again with Boucher's bat in the air.
Harbhajan returned to bowl his last two overs right at the end and foxed Elton Chigumbura with another doosra. The batsman was into his shot too early and lost his stumps. His 3 for 49 wasn't a spectacular spell by any stretch of imagination. But it was far better than he has bowled in recent times. In fact it was only his second three-wicket haul - the other being against West Indies in the DLF Cup in Malaysia - since the series against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi in April 2006. It wasn't much, but it was a start towards winning himself a ticket to England.