Perform or perish for Harbhajan, Rohit and Ishant Sharma

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Captains Kumar Sangakkara & Virat Kohli both have plenty to play for.

While Legedary Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara will want to finish on a high at home, Virat Kohli and India have some questions to answer. Ayaz Memon investigates the deeper significance of the upcoming series between Sri Lanka and India. 

Most of the attention in the series between India and Sri Lanka – at least for the first two Tests – will undoubtedly be on Kumar Sangakkara, who signs off from the sport after the second match, leaving behind a plethora of records and a monumental legacy.

Few players in the history of cricket have been as prolific and as influential. He has been a champion batsman and a terrific role model. Suffice to say, Sanga is an all-time great whose absence will be deeply felt, not just by Sri Lanka but the entire cricketing universe.

That the Sri Lankan players and fans will want to give Sangakkara a fitting farewell is a cinch – and what better way than to win the series, preferably by the time he retires. This is where the Indian team needs to be wary: they can’t afford to get distracted by the ‘emotional quotient’ of the circumstances and lose focus.

For several reasons and for many Indian players, this is a crunch series. Virat Kohli is on his first assignment as full-fledged captain in a full rubber and will want to leave his impression – as batsman and captain – to remove lingering doubts that he is the right man for the job.

As stop-gap captain in Australia and in the one-off Test against Bangladesh, he looked aggressive and capable. But when the duration of the contest gets longer, the onus on the captain becomes bigger too. Tactics, team selection, sustenance in performance et al acquire a different dimension from being a stand-in leader, or playing just one match.

Essentially Kohli has to move on from the MS Dhoni era and mould the team in his own personality without creating too much dissonance. This is not going to be easy considering the huge influence his predecessor had on the Indian dressing room for more than seven years.

The most important task ahead for Kohli, I would venture, is to earn the respect of his team-mates. As a batsman, there is little doubt that he has already achieved this. But as a captain, he will be watched closely: I dare say, the closest, within his own dressing room.

Tangibly, what this means is that he must show the way to his team to win matches. In the past 18-20 months, India have floundered badly, especially when playing overseas. While conditions in Sri Lanka will hardly be as daunting as in England or Australia, India’s record in the Emerald Isles too in the past decade has been very, very tepid.

If Kohli can correct that, he will have crossed an important hurdle. If he can inspire his side to a clean sweep, it will push India’s Test ranking up from 5 to 3, which would be a fantastic achievement. Though the Sri Lankans are in the process of rebuilding and have had an unhappy series against Pakistan, they will not be pushovers playing at home. The Indian captain has his work cut out.

But Kohli is not the only Indian player who will be under the microscope. Indeed there are many fledglings – like K L Rahul and Varun Aaron – whose potential will be assessed, while the Test careers of others hang by a slender thread, namely Rohit Sharma, Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma.

The second category is the more important in the current context because all three players mentioned look to be certain starters in the playing Xl, perhaps for all three matches. This makes their performance doubly important – for how the team fares in the series as well as their own future.

After waiting in the wings for almost five years, Rohit made a sparkling start to his Test career, scoring two centuries in his first two Tests, but his form has since flagged. As a limited overs cricketer he has scaled great heights, hitting two double centuries, but in the five-day format he has been unable to build up big scores despite fine starts.

There is not a single expert I know who doubts his talent. But there are several who now question his temperament. Is he just too casual for his own good? Does he lack the temperament to play himself out of tough situations with patience, which is inevitably demanded in Test cricket? Does he simply lack the desire to succeed as a Test batsman?

Going into this series, Rohit still has the confidence and backing of the two men who matter on tour: skipper Kohli and team director Ravi Shastri. I spoke to Shastri a few days before he emplaned for Colombo and he told me that Rohit was critical to the team plans. “He has the ability to win a match in a single session,’’ said Shastri.

That is high praise, but comes accompanied by high expectations too. To be fair, Rohit himself has acknowledged that he has let his supporters down consistently. “I know I have to deliver this time,’’ he told the media before leaving on tour. These words express much-needed introspection. But the real test is how Rohit’s bat, not he, talks.

Ishant Sharma, not unlike Rohit, had a great start to his career in Australia in 2008. The reedy fast bowler harried even the great Ricky Ponting with his pace and bounce, and was instantly hailed as the ‘next big thing’ in Indian cricket. But in the years since has been a frustratingly ‘now on-now off’ bowler.

Success for Ishant has come in fits and starts. When he has bowled well, he has looked really dangerous, but when he has lacked rhythm, he has looked extremely mediocre. Many critics reckon that Ishant’s off days outnumber the days when he has bowled well, which mitigates his importance to the side.

On this tour Ishant is the spearhead. But that position could be short-lived unless he provides the strike power and breakthrough that the team needs. With Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar in the squad, India’s pace department is not meagre, but Ishant has to show the way – or he could be shown the way out.

In a sense, Harbhajan Singh is in the most piquant – and daunting – situation. Having made his debut way back in 1998 and after taking 400-plus wickets, he lost his place in the side in 2012-13 and looked consigned to history till his surprise return to international cricket in April.

There is little doubt that Kohli had a major hand in reviving Harbhajan’s career for the off-spinner had not made any great impact in domestic first class cricket, Most of his successes had, in fact come in the shorter format, particularly the IPL.

To his credit, Harbhajan had not let his desire flag and kept himself fit for a recall.

The key question now is whether he has the wherewithal to make his comeback fruitful. He had lost his place to R Ashwin for his failure to pick up wickets as regularly as he had in his peak years. The argument against him was that he had become defensive, was not flighting the ball as much as he should.

India are most likely to play both the off-spinners in the Tests, and in some ways, this will showcase a battle within a battle. Ashwin is now clearly the main spinner of the side, Harbhajan the challenger.

All these three players, therefore, are at an inflection point in their careers. What they need to show is high degree of skill, but perhaps more importantly, mental toughness.

Simply put, it is perform or perish.

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