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Thursday, May 06, 2021

Explained: Did Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Sehwag & Zaheer get the closure they deserved?

It is easy to be critical of selectors, and the BCCI in general, once your playing days are over. But if the comments emanate from someone of Yuvraj Singh's stature, one can’t dismiss them outrightly.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 12, 2020 12:51:59 pm
‘But looking back at a couple of great players like Harbhajan, Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, also very badly mismanaged,’ Yuvraj Singh said

Recently, former Indian all-rounder Yuvraj Singh revealed that he felt mistreated by the Indian cricket board towards the end of his glittering career.

“I just felt that the way they managed me towards the end of my career was very unprofessional. But looking back at a couple of great players like Harbhajan, Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, also very badly mismanaged. So it is part of Indian cricket, I had seen it in the past and I was not really surprised,” Singh, who announced his retirement in 2019, told a sports portal.

It is easy to be critical of selectors, and the BCCI in general, once your playing days are over. But if the comments emanate from someone of Yuvraj Singh’s stature, one can’t dismiss them outrightly. But one does need to check the veracity of the claims about such illustrious careers not getting the closure they deserved.

Prince loses regal touch

Yuvraj’s fans will like to remember him for his six consecutive sixes off Stuart Broad at the inaugural ICC World T20 and the string of decisive interventions at the 2011 World Cup. But he was never the same player post his illness – which came to light after the memorable triumph on home turf. His fitness and fielding, once an example for others, had deteriorated on his comeback.

Yuvraj played 40 Tests but his struggles in the longest format were all too evident, especially outside the sub-continent. His strength was his stylish and effortless stroke play and big-hitting in white-ball cricket. But that ability was also on the wane in the final four-and-a-half years of his international career.

Statistically speaking, a batting average of 27.08 over 30 matches can only be termed disappointing, and a lesser player would have got the axe much earlier. Apart from a throwback 150 against England in Cuttack, Yuvraj was struggling to dominate bowling attacks even at home. His weakness against the ball that moved off the line – against both fast and spin bowlers – made it easier for opposition captains to tie him up.

And once India failed to defend their ICC Champions Trophy title in 2017 – losing to Pakistan in the final – time was ripe for a change of guard, with the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Manish Pandey waiting in the wings. Though Yuvraj went to the West Indies for an afterthought of a series, the writing was on the wall.

As far as his T20 International career is concerned, it could very well have ended with the infamous 21-ball 11 in the final of the 2014 ICC World T20. Yuvraj faced the wrath of the fans as India went down to Sri Lanka in Dhaka. But it is testament to his stature that he not only made a comeback to the team in the shortest format, but also played in the next edition of the World T20. Yuvraj’s highest score in the remainder of his T20I career was 35 with an average of 19 over 18 games. Clearly, the veteran didn’t give the selectors enough reasons to persist with him at a time when younger players were snapping at his heels. Read this article in Tamil

Nawab loses impact

Despite his batting style and temperament, Test cricket was the format Virender Sehwag was most successful in, as he could set the tone of an innings or a match in quick time.

He played 104 Tests and the last of his 23 centuries came in his 99th game, which may suggest the dashing opener was hard done by.

But sometimes, selectors have to make judgement calls. Sehwag played his last Test in Hyderabad in March 2013, and hadn’t made a fifty since the hundred against England in Ahmedabad in November 2012. India were scheduled to embark on a long overseas stint, with back-to-back series in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, and Sehwag’s effectiveness outside the subcontinent had been on the wane.

In fact, his last ton outside Asia came in January 2008 in Adelaide. Also, Sehwag’s hundred in Ahmedabad was his first in 17 Tests. Murli Vijay was coming into his own as an opener and the selectors thrust Shikhar Dhawan in the Test after Sehwag’s last, with the southpaw responding with a 174-ball 187 on debut.

Sehwag was well into his 35th year then and with his hand-eye coordination not what it was a few years ago, the road to comeback seemed an uphill task.

Sehwag was part of the triumphant 2007 ICC World T20 squad but had a short and sporadic international career in the shortest format, which came to an end after the 2012 event in Sri Lanka. India went for Dhawan and Rohit Sharma as the opening pair in white-ball cricket thereafter, and it served the team quite well.

As far as his ODI career goes, then skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s remark during the 2012 tri-series in Australia that it was difficult to include Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir in the same playing XI as they were no longer that nimble in the field was a signal of things to come.

The Delhi opener had hit an ODI double ton against West Indies a couple of months earlier but was short of runs Down Under. He managed just one substantial score thereafter – 96 against Sri Lanka at Hambantota in July 2012 and the defeat in the home series against Pakistan sealed his fate.

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Turbanator loses the bite

Harbhajan Singh was arguably at his best around 2010-11, making a telling impact even outside the subcontinent. But post the trip to the Caribbean after the World Cup success, his returns diminished. Over his last seven Tests (two in England and five in Asia), the best he managed was a three-wicket haul against Bangladesh at Fatullah. It coincided with Ravichandran Ashwin making a big impression very early on in his Test career. With Ravindra Jadeja also in the reckoning, the ‘Turbanator’ had to make way.

Incidentally, it was Harbhajan’s poor returns that had opened the door for Ashwin’s Test debut and him missing the tour to Australia. He did make a brief comeback to the Test arena but it was clear he was past his peak as Ashwin became the lead spinner of the team.

Even when he wasn’t at his deadliest, Harbhajan could be relied upon to do a job and keep things tight. It made him a valuable player in one-day cricket where he would often bowl flat and a restrictive line.

But in his last 10 ODIs, which incidentally came after the 2011 World Cup, there was hardly a spell that could be termed match-turning. He was ignored for more than four years and was also omitted for the title defence in 2015, which signalled he was not a first-choice player in the eyes of the selectors.

Apart from his 3/32 against West Indies at Port of Spain in 2011, Harbhajan didn’t manage more than two wickets in a game during the fag end of his ODI career. And when he was taken to the cleaners – as were the other Indian bowlers – by AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis in the series decider in Mumbai in October, the writing was on the wall.

His reliability in T20Is can be gauged from the fact that the most runs Harbhajan ever conceded in a match was 36. But he was never the most prolific wicket-taker – as 25 scalps in 28 games would suggest – and when the selectors and team management went the wrist-spin route, to push for wickets in the middle overs, with Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, there was no way back for Harbhajan.

Zaheer Khan – Body betrayal

Zaheer Khan fought his body throughout his stellar Test career, but the beginning of the end can be traced back to one date: July 21, 2011.

The newly-crowned 50-over world champions were in England for a four-Test rubber, with their chances of a series victory talked up on the basis of a potent bowling attack led by the ace left-arm pacer.

But those ambitions were dashed on the opening day of the series itself when Zaheer walked off Lords with a hamstring injury. India went down 0-4, the start of a dismal away stint.

It was the cruelest blow in a career shaped around injury layoffs. Zaheer returned for the Australian tour at the end of the year, and though most of his 15 wickets often put India in early ascendancy, he couldn’t prevent a repeat of the series scoreline from England.

Thereafter on home soil, Zaheer didn’t have much to do as India relied on spin to bowl oppositions out, but come the South Africa tour in 2013-end, the left-armer was the one on whom India banked.

In the Rainbow Nation, and in New Zealand soon after, India got in winning positions but couldn’t force a result. In Johannesburg, the hosts almost chased down 458 for victory. In Wellington, India squandered a big first-innings lead and despite getting half the Kiwi team out for under 100 in the second innings, a record partnership between Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling, with the New Zealand skipper scoring the country’s first triple hundred, put paid to their plans.

It was now evident that fitness was letting Zaheer down. His pace was down considerably and he was reliant on his nous and experience to get wickets. He picked up another injury and with Ishant Sharma gaining in experience as Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar burst onto the scene, Zaheer – now past his mid-30s – decided to move on.

Zaheer didn’t play another ODI in 2011 after the World Cup and only nine thereafter. There was a line of thinking to preserve him for overseas assignments, but his effectiveness was down and he didn’t take more than two wickets in any game.

He didn’t play the inaugural ICC World T20, but did feature in the three subsequent editions, enjoying only sporadic success.

After the high

A common theme running through these four careers is the 2011 World Cup. These players were integral to India reaching the summit of the cricket world on April 2 of that year. From the peak of their playing days, with the greatest ambition fulfilled, their careers slipped – whether due to injury, illness, loss of form or just advancing years.

So while Yuvraj was a pale shadow of the player he was, Sehwag was far from his best, with age catching up and hampering his consistency. In Harbhajan’s case, it was simply a matter of a younger – and at that stage, better – option available to the team, and Zaheer’s potency was compromised by his injuries.

Selectors are often expected to make subjective calls, rather than just going for tried and tested players based on past records. These four players provided exemplary service, but there comes a time when an individual has to realise that his race is run. Lines of communication could have been maintained better, but the selectors can’t be accused of unprofessionalism or mismanagement in these cases.

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