"Wishing the guys all the best in Dominica," tweeted Ramnaresh Sarwan this weekend, referring to the third Test of the series between West Indies and India, "Miami here I come". One of the many joys wrought from so many leading cricketers being on Twitter is that you have advanced warning of selectors' thinking. We don't know for certain that Sarwan will be dropped; but as an early steer this could hardly be bettered.
Sarwan was dispirited after his 18 and 8 in the tense, drawn second Test at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados. The match has been interpreted in some quarters as a low-scoring, uneventful affair. Yet buried within the action was an exhibition of the diminishing powers of two players who a decade ago promised greatness, but now struggle to warrant their place in the Test side. The first is Sarwan; the second is Harbhajan Singh.
The Guyanese No 3 was dropped for the early part of the recent Pakistan series and, save for a 75 in the final ODI against India, has struggled for form since.
There was something terribly painful watching him reduce his game to only two shots – a squarish drive and the cut – in a bid to regain some fluency, and fail nevertheless. His recent dismissals betray a profound anxiety over the whereabouts of his off-stump, and by pitching full to him, the Indians have reduced his confidence to rubble. His Test average is left hovering fractionally over 40; his captain, Darren Sammy, has offered only lukewarm support, and his place in the team is in jeopardy.
All of which is a long way from the dashing, wristy brilliance of the unbeaten 84 in his first Test innings, against Pakistan in 2000, after which Ted Dexter presented him with a large albatross for the adornment of his neck, by predicting a Test average of over 50. But on his first tour, of England later that year, Sarwan topped the averages with such flair and surety of footwork that Dexter's crime seemed understatement rather than the opposite.
I remember very distinctly the moment on that tour I became convinced he was destined for greatness. Craig White, whose action was by then working well enough for him to surpass 90mph regularly, cracked Sarwan in the ribs with one that snorted off a length. The 20-year-old was floored for five minutes. And then, to White's next delivery, a good length ball just outside off-stump, he played the most flamboyant, assured leave possible, giving full stretch to the rib cage bearing a purple bruise.
Eleven days ago Sarwan turned 31. Harbhajan turned 31 yesterday. His figures were 14-3-31-1 and 19-2-42-1: ineffective. In March 2001, he took 32 wickets in three Tests against Australia – including the first Test hat-trick by an Indian – while none of his team-mates managed more than three. He was then a bowler whose stock ball turned sharply and drifted away from the right-hander, and whose whirligig, open action, which sometimes meant he bowled from beyond the vertical – ie 11 o'clock – induced terror in batsmen.
Now, 95 Tests into his career, he has lost his off-break, the inevitable consequence of his flirtation with the doosra, which led to his action being questioned. He may have 398 Test wickets at 31.9, but he plays so much limited-overs cricket that his strategic nous for the five-day game is gone. He should be sacrificed for the much craftier left-arm of Pragyan Ojha, or any one of three leg-spinners, Piyush Chawla, Rahul Sharma, and Amit Mishra.
Harbhajan is too proud to retire from Tests, though by saving his body he might increase his longevity in other forms of the game. Yet he will never again be the bowler who got Ricky Ponting out five times for under 12 in one series.
For Sarwan, the consolation is that those on the team fringes are capable rather than brilliant. He need not, like the mercurial Carl Hooper, be remembered for failing to fulfil his potential. But who will tell him that salvation lies in the nets, and not in Miami?