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It’s a question that an Indian captain, especially while playing away in the recent past, has rarely dealt with or been forced to answer. When Anil Kumble or Harbhajan Singh, or both, were in the touring party, the hierarchy in the spin department was not a grey area. But this time around, things are very different.
On this tour of misfortune and mishaps, if the injuries to key players have been bad for the team, their timing has been worse. Zaheer’s hamstring strain saw him sit out the second Test and be a mere spectator at Trent Bridge’s very pace-friendly conditions, as fast bowlers on both sides indulged in a fierce battle to outsmart some of the best batsmen the game has ever seen. And just when India is set to play on a pitch that favours spinners at Edgbaston, Harbhajan Singh — the current leading wicket taker in the world — will be missing.
Harbhajan is sure to feel the pinch, for the last time a Test was played here — England vs Pakistan — off-spinners from both sides extracted enormous spin and scalped the prized wickets. On Day Two of that match, Saeed Ajmal finished with figures of 5/82, but on the fourth and final day, Graeme Swann dealt a far more decisive blow with figures of 6/65. Harbhajan would probably have marked August 10 to 14 in red before landing in England, but little did he know that insult followed closely by injury would end his tour before Birmingham.
India, though, cannot afford to cry over spilt milk. For right from the first net session on Monday, the team management should ideally be noting down reasons to choose between Mishra and Ojha as Harbhajan’s suitable replacement.
While Mishra played the tour game at Northampton, Ojha will be silently confident that despite the leg-spinner’s score of 61, his figures of 2/64 from 25 overs was a modest outing by any standards. It was Mishra’s ineffectiveness against Northamptonshire’s openers — twin centurions — that is sure to give Dhoni grief and Ojha hope.
The left-arm spinner too hasn’t come up with performances that would automatically push Mishra out of contention. Like Mishra’s fine showing against the Australians in his debut series at home, Ojha also had his moments while wearing whites against the Sri Lankans a year ago. But unfortunately for Ojha, it hasn’t been consistent enough. And he still remains the bowler who is best remembered for being Deccan Chargers’ trump card during their IPL triumph.
The similarity between the tweakers doesn’t end there. What really makes choosing between them a mighty tough call is the fact that their Test records are virtually the same. Both have played exactly 11 Tests, and scalped a strikingly similar number of wickets — Mishra 40, Ojha 42. While Mishra has a better average of 38, it isn’t too different from Ojha’s 40. And apart from the one Test that Mishra played in the Caribbean, the pair have played all their white-flanelled cricket in the subcontinent.
Since flipping a coin will probably be a juvenile way of dealing with the matter of choosing between two men with uncannily similar credentials, the situation will need to be glanced from a more generic angle. They say left-arm spinners can play a big role in restricting the flow of runs and are ideal partners to complement wicket-taking pacers. As for leg-spinners, they might get hit for a few extra runs but wickets are always just around the corner.
A lot will depend on making the correct choice at Edgbaston. It won’t only decide the series result, but also reveal Dhoni’s mindset for the game. If Mishra is picked then the skipper is in attack mode; Ojha’s inclusion will be an ominous sign of India’s defensive strategy.