Rahane, Harbhajan and life on the sidelines
It's even more difficult, one can safely imagine, for an already established and one-time successful player to watch on from the outside as his mates do battle in the middle. Harbhajan Singh must surely be reflecting back on the times when he was the young turk and, when India played overseas, he was the preferred spinner, even ahead of Anil Kumble.
Had Sunil Valson played even one game in the 1983 World Cup, it is unlikely that he would have remained in the consciousness of the Indian public for as long as he has now.
Valson, the left-arm fast-medium bowler from Delhi, was the only member of the squad that didn't get a game during India's triumphant march to the title, nearly 30 years back. It's unlikely that Valson would have enjoyed the experience; while it is true that he will forever remain a World Cup winner, Valson would much rather have played at least once in the tournament for he would then have felt that he had also made a tangible contribution to the team's cause.
Life can be extremely lonely for the fringe player, especially when on tour and even more so when the team isn't doing well. It's one thing when you realise that it's almost impossible to change a winning combination unless there are extraordinary developments. It's quite another to continue to warm the bench when, even with the team not doing well, there is a distinct reluctance to bring those on the sidelines in to play.
Take Ajinkya Rahane, for instance. Before his debut in the Delhi Test against Australia, Rahane had been a part of the Indian squad for five consecutive series - dating back to November 2011 against West Indies - without getting a go. During that period, India have won three series and lost two, including at home against England. Rahane must have looked on in frustration from the outside as one player after another made his Test debut. It's all fine to talk about going to the nets day after day, keeping on honing one's skills and being as prepared as possible when your time comes, but in reality, the entire process can sometimes become tedious, draining one of his mental reserves and leaving him a little flat and out of sync when the big moment arrives.
It's even more difficult, one can safely imagine, for an already established and one-time successful player to watch on from the outside as his mates do battle in the middle. Harbhajan Singh must surely be reflecting back on the times when he was the young turk and, when India played overseas, he was the preferred spinner, even ahead of Anil Kumble. Today, Harbhajan is something of an outsider in cricketing terms; he was brought into the Indian squad for the Test series against England, didn't play the opening game in Ahmedabad, was grossly underbowled compared to R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in the second Test in Mumbai, and then dumped for the rest of the series.
Harbhajan's brilliant record against Australia at home - 81 wickets in 12 Tests before the current series started - allied with the host of left-handers in the Aussie top order played a huge role in his inclusion in the squad for the Test matches against Michael Clarke's team. One needn't dig too deep to figure out why Harbhajan, despite the aforementioned factors, finds himself out of favour again. In Chennai and Hyderabad combined, he had returns of 5 for 204 from 84 overs in fairly spin-friendly conditions. The team management had no option but to turn to Ojha for the Mohali Test, leaving a veteran of over 100 Tests and more than 400 Test wickets to once again ponder his future and wonder if he has played his last Test ever.
Mitchell Johnson isn't quite in a similar situation - he hasn't played half as many Tests as the offspinner and has taken less than half the wickets Harbhajan has - but he is the only one of the four Australian pacers on tour after Jackson Bird left for home before the start of the first Test who hadn't played a Test this series before being drafted into the XI for the Delhi game. Johnson has been a bit of an enigma, only sporadically translating his extraodinary ability to consistently meaningful performances, but he must have fancied his chances of a game earlier on, considering he is one of only four Australians in this squad to have had the experience of Test cricket in India. Instead, Australia have gone with Peter Siddle as the first choice, alongside James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc, until finally fielding Johnson in the final game of the tour.
Johnson had at least optimism to fall back on. For Usman Khawaja, even that door would appear closed. It is more than likely that Khawaja would have come in for Phillip Hughes in Mohali if all other things had been equal. By not responding to Mickey Arthur's assignment, Khawaja has shot himself in the foot. He will leave India without having added to his tally of six Test matches, and it is debatable if, in the absence of any slice of Test action, he has added anything substantial to his knowledge data base when it comes to playing the turning ball.
So, do these players occasionally, apologetically, hope for an injury to a mate so that they can get a look-in? Are they that desperate to play that they don't mind a backdoor entry, despite being fully aware that there is no guarantee for success once they are in the XI? One can't say for sure if this line of thought is ever pursued but if it is, then one can't really blame them for what might be construed as evil, self-serving thoughts.
In times such as these, when experienced players - like Harbhajan and Johnson - and relative greenhorns - such as Rahane, Ashok Dinda and Khawaja - are merely making up the numbers for the most part, so to say, it becomes the lot of the captain to keep their spirits up. That's easier said than done. The captain's first responsibility is towards the XI picked to do battle, but he can ill afford to let those on the fringes fend for themselves. Captaincy is as much about setting the right fields and making the right changes as about man management, and nothing is more difficult to manage than a disgruntled individual or a player who believes he has been denied his rightful due.
"I've spent a lot of time with the players individually on this tour, and it's always the case when you go on a long tour," said Clarke as he threw light on his approach to the situation. "Unfortunately, there are times when you are not playing. I think everybody, especially the young players, face this throughout their careers. I certainly faced that as a young player, when I was on a lot of tours and ran a lot of drinks and didn't play much cricket. But the most important thing is that you're trying to improve while you are there. You're learning about the conditions. You're preparing like you're playing. That's one thing I've tried to be consistent with the guys.
"I've normally had 16, 17, sometimes 18 players at times on this tour. But every single one of them needs to do their preparation like they are going to be selected. So if they are picked up in the team, it's not a surprise, they're ready to go," he said. "And Usman and Mitchell have been two of those guys who have been 100% ready for their opportunity, it's just that at this stage they haven't received that opportunity."
For a professional, competitive sportsperson in a team environment, nothing is worse than not getting an opportunity to showcase his skills. They say of love, that it is better to love and lose than not love at all; Dinda, Khawaja and their ilk might say it's better to play and fail - in the worst case scenario - than not play at all.