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Left-arm, left out: Where now for Pragyan Ojha?


Jamie Alter,Cricketnext
Mar 06, 2013 at 08:09am IST

Australia's pre-series troubles with spin had put the spotlight on India's No. 1 Test spinner, Pragyan Ojha. In a two-day match against the Board President's XI, the Australians struggled against offspinner Parvez Rassol who took 7 for 45, which included the wickets of Ed Cowan, Matthew Wade and Steven Smith. Against India A later in the week, the Australians were bowled out for 235 with Rakesh Dhurv and Jalaj Saxena sharing nine wickets. Suddenly, it seemed like the Australians were cannon fodder for Ojha, who was the leading wicket-taker in the defeat to England last year with 20 victims at 30.85 and before that proved a handful for New Zealand.

Against an Australia line-up lacking experience of the conditions, it was foreseeable that Ojha would be given the ball early is MS Dhoni perceived a weakness. It had happened several times before. And even though the Australian line-up had several left-hand batsmen, Ojha was a big threat due to his accuracy and discipline.

But then, come March 21, and Harbhajan Singh confirmed that he would be playing his 100th Test in Chennai. Would India play four spinners? Would R Ashwin miss out after struggling against England? The questions buzzed. Less than a day later, the Indian team sheet did not have Ojha's name on it. India had opted for two pacers, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and three spinners in Ashwin, Harbhajan and the allrounder Ravindra Jadeja. Those last three accounted for all 20 Australian wickets in the eight-wicket win.

Left-arm, left out: Where now for Pragyan Ojha?

Following the success of Ashwin and Jadeja in consecutive Tests, and India's apparent faith in Harbhajan, the left-arm spinner's future looks uncertain.

As the series moved upwards over the Eastern Ghats to Hyderabad, there was talk of whether the local boy would play the second Test. In Chennai, Ishant had bowled 20 overs without success and Bhuvneshwar just 13 wicketless overs; Harbhajan had taken 3 for 142 in 52 overs, one of which was a tailender; Ashwin had grabbed 12 and Jadeja five. Again it was asked: would India drop a pacer and throw in another spinner considering Australia's fragility against spin?

The answer was a cold no, as India put faith in their two pace bowlers. Bhuvneshwar sent down nine consecutive overs in his first spell on day one to take out three of Australia's top four; later in the day Jadeja prized out choked Australia with a six-wicket spell that extracted Clarke, Moises Henriques - Australia's best player of spin in Chennai after Clarke, with twin fifties on debut - and Glenn Maxwell. On day four, Jadeja removed Clarke for a third time to finish the second Test with six wickets. He now has 11 wickets at 19.00 in the series.

The third Test is in Mohali, a venue where pace has had a say, so it is extremely unlikely that India will separate Bhuvneshwar - who adds value with the bat - and Ishant, whose excellent spell of 5-2-5-1 on day four in Hyderabad was his best all series, never mind that it was the first breakthrough he had made in 39 overs.

Harbhajan has five wickets at 40.80, two of which are Peter Siddle. He was best during the second innings in Chennai when he tossed the ball up, but has often fallen back to a flat, middle-and-leg line. It is believed that Harbhajan's past record against Australia had earned him a spot ahead of Ojha for the first Test. Now, despite an unimpressive run, he looks primed to continue in front of his home fans. Dhoni spoke of momentum and winning combinations after both Tests, which strongly suggests India will field an unchanged XI in Mohali. That match is still over a week away, which in the realm of Indian cricket can seem like six months - but all signs are that Ojha, once the Test team's strike bowler, will sit out again.

What could also be going against Ojha is his batting. Ashwin and Harbhajan both have Test centuries and Jadeja is the specialist allrounder at No. 7, whereas Ojha is a proper tailender. Whether or not this weighs on Ojha's mind is not known, but it seems a cruel twist of events for the bowler who took in six Tests in 2012 took 33 wickets at 25.96. Such are the ways of Indian cricket, especially during this period of transition. The challenge for Ojha now is to stay afloat mentally, and to grab his chance whenever it comes.

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