Opening showdown

First game of season will see off-spinners Harbhajan and R Ashwin go head-to-head

Written by G.S. Vivek | Chennai | Published: April 4, 2012 1:07:16 am

The weatherman says it’s just 33 degrees and a mere 55 per cent humidity; by Chennai standards summer is still some time away but for the Mumbai Indians players,especially the foreign recruits,getting through the Tuesday morning practice session was quite an arduous task. But that didn’t stop them from having a bit of fun at the expense of their skipper Harbhajan Singh.

Robin Peterson curiously looked on as mentor Shaun Pollock tried to mock Harbhajan’s spread-the-wings bowling action,and soon it became a contest of sorts as the original stood by to judge the best of the duplicates.

In all seriousness,Harbhajan’s wings have been clipped of late,due to form and injury-related issues,and he has been forced to fly in the low-altitude climes of the domestic circuit,thanks to a man named R Ashwin. Interestingly enough,the IPL opener at the MA Chidambaram stadium on Wednesday night between Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians also starts off a fresh new battle for the tag of India’s number one spinner between the two off spinners. With India playing their entire season at home and the World T20 set to be staged in the sub-continent,there’s plenty at stake for the lead spinner. While Ashwin and Harbhajan have co-existed briefly,both have been forced to snipe at each other for survival.

The last one year has been primarily Ashwin’s —- his aura of mystery and control have superseded Harbhajan’s long-standing reputation. But gradually,batsmen have begun reading Ashwin’s carrom ball better,and have begun playing him with an increasing degree of comfort.

Learning the rope

Ashwin has played only six Tests,but the contrasting returns from his Man of the Series performance at home against the West Indies and his struggles in Australia only show that he is a young man still learning the ropes. In ODIs,comparing their 10 most recent matches,the records of Ashwin and Harbhajan aren’t very different. The older man,in fact,has a slight edge. Ashwin has taken 12 wickets at the average of 37.91,striking once every 46 deliveries and giving away 4.95 runs per over. Harbhajan averages 36.18 for his 11 wickets,and while his strike rate is slightly worse at 52.9,his economy rate of 4.10 is far better.

The IPL might be just a T20 tournament,a domestic event with a dash of foreign content and oodles of glamour,but the hype around the event makes it impossible for selectors to ignore or overlook a performance,sometimes even transcending the format of the game. There have been instances in the recent past — Rahul Sharma comes to mind immediately — that reiterates the importance of doing well in the IPL to catch the selectors’ eye.

Both Ashwin and Harbhajan have a stern test ahead of them. With all varieties of big-hitters spotted in the team’s line-ups — Richard Levi,Kieron Pollard,Herschelle Gibbs,Rohit Sharma,Murali Vijay,Suresh Raina,MS Dhoni,Albie Morkel,George Bailey,Ravindra Jadeja — bowling in the powerplays or at any stage of the game can be intimidating. With a superb line-up of seam bowlers — Lasith Malinga,Munaf Patel,RP Singh — the Mumbai Indians skipper will find it hard to open the bowling while Chennai skipper has seldom hesitated in handing the new ball to Ashwin.

This year,as Dhoni himself suggested on Tuesday,Ashwin might even open the batting in the initial matches to make up for the lack of openers in the squad,with Michael Hussey busy with Australia’s tour of the Caribbean and Abhinav Mukund injured. Ashwin,interestingly,has played for India under-16 as an opening batsman,and his talent was not lost in translation to the senior India team. Harbhajan is a useful bat too,and dependable in times of crisis,but with such a commanding batting line-up,it will unlikely that he will promote himself up the order for an equal battle.

Moving beyond the main contenders,Mumbai’s dressing room contains another man who has played second fiddle to both of them. Pragyan Ojha has been a regular fixture of Team India in Tests and ODIs but has remained a standby in both formats. The left-arm spinner,who joined Mumbai Indians on a transfer from Deccan Chargers this season,will be bringing in the third angle to the battle of spinners.

The Chepauk pitch has been redone,and the defending champions admit it will be a new experience for them as well and will neutralize the strong home advantage they have enjoyed over the last two years. On a pitch that is looking to redeem its reputation and is expected to hold firm and hard for better stroke-making,the three spinners will be engaged in a struggle to hold their own and create a good first impression.

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