'No second chances when you are playing for the country'

After a good run in Tests, Ojha eyes comeback in shorter version

It was sheer coincidence that just after England completed their 4-0 whitewash of India in the Test series late last year at The Oval, the home of Surrey, Pragyan Ojha played a crucial role in the English County side getting promoted to Division One.

The left-arm spinner, one of the overseas players for the then Division Two side, took 24 wickets at 12.95 as Surrey won four matches in a row to make the grade after a prolonged stint in the lower division. The irony, though, was hard to miss. While Ojha relished the English conditions, India, among several other things, were desperately looking for a spinner to turn their fortunes around.

Harbhajan Singh left injured midway through the tour while second spinner Amit Mishra was listless in the final two Tests he played. Of course, no one can state with surety that Ojha would have made the difference, but there weren’t many cricketing reasons as to why the Hyderabad bowler, inducted for the final Test as Harbhajan’s replacement, wasn’t part of the Indian squad in the first place.

“Yeah, when you are not playing for your country, you do get disappointed,” admitted Ojha when asked if he was surprised not to find a place on Test tours to the West Indies and England. The 25-year-old had taken 28 wickets in six Tests preceding the Caribbean soujourn, but Mishra got the selectors’ nod. After the Haryana bowler failed to make an impression during the twin away series, Ojha was recalled and, together with debutant R Ashwin, bowled India to a 2-0 Test series win over West Indies at home with 20 scalps from three matches.  

“I was just trying to focus on my inner strengths and brush up on my cricket,” remarked the Orissa-born cricketer. “I was really keen on being more consistent, especially in the county cricket. Then playing a lot of domestic cricket, getting a lot of match practice -- that always keeps you ready. County cricket helped me a lot and when I got my chance against the West Indies in India, I did quite well and I am really happy about that,” observed Ojha, whose last 48 wickets have come in just nine Tests.

While on tours outside the sub-continent he is still not an automatic choice, Ojha, along with Ashwin, has made the struggling Harbhajan’s return a bit more difficult. “I know one thing very clearly -- that when you are playing for your country, it is not a cake-walk. When the whole country is depending on you, you have a lot of responsibility. You do have senior players but you always share the same responsibility as they do. I just tell myself ‘I really have to do well and that there are no ifs and buts.’ You know there are really no second chances when you are playing for the country.”

The fastest Indian left-arm spinner to 50 Test wickets -- in all, he has 62 wickets from 14 games -- Ojha appears quite satisfied with the way his career is progressing in the longer version.

“To be very honest, till it happened, I was not aware of what the record was,” he noted. “Having great left-arm spinners like BS Bedi, Venkatapathi Raju, Sunil Joshi and then Ravi Shastri ... I mean there have been a lot of great bowlers and then to be the fastest left-arm spinner to reach 50 wickets, it’s a great feeling.

“If I tick all the boxes like practising, having good matches and keeping myself fit, that will really help me perform better in the years to come. As far as my Test career is concerned, I have done well. Right now, I am really looking forward to getting into the one-day and T20 sides,” he explained, stressing that improving his batting could be the key to breaking back into the ODI and T20 squads.

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