Venkat Ananth

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Harbhajan Singh: India’s ‘mystery’ spinner

 

 

In the wake of the Centurion Test, India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni came down unusually hard on his bowlers.

 
His post-match comments were an exercise in stating the blindingly obvious -- and stating them with unusual vigor. You need to take 20 wickets to win a Test, Dhoni pointed out -- and the bowling lineup showed no sign of being able to accomplish that task. Worse -- again, as Dhoni pointed out -- the morning session of day 3, in course of which India gave away 225 runs, made defeat inevitable by allowing South Africa to declare and bury India not merely under a mountain of runs, but also time.

 
The points Dhoni made were well taken, but they were also characterized by a glaring anomaly. When going into specifics, this is what the skipper said:

 
Our bowlers are not express quick. They don't generally bowl over 140-plus. They have to be very precise with their line and length. We tried different fields. We tried to work around their bowling aspects, which, more often than not, will work with a set batsman. We tried to contain them but it was not successful for a period of time."

What that comment omits is the performance of the sole spinner in the side. And the omission is both glaring and curious, because Harbhajan Singh is not merely the lead spinner in the ranks, but de facto is the lead strike bowler. Absent Zaheer Khan, who brings vast experience not merely to his bowling but also to the task of shepherding his seam-bowling partners along, it was Harbhajan Singh who had to take the onus -- and what we got instead was a display of ineptitude in the field, and petulance off it.

 
Consider the first innings. The off spinner came on to bowl in the 19th over, with the score on 64/0. Given his seniority and supposed skill, his brief at that point would have been two-fold: to stem the flow of runs, and to provide a breakthrough so India could get back into the game. Instead, in his first over he bowled two short, both of which resulted in boundaries; his analysis after 4 overs was 0/32. True, he got the wicket of Smith in the next over, but much of the damage had been done by then.

Or consider that disastrous morning session of day three, when the Proteas went from 366/2 to 591/3 in course of a session. Harbhajan got the ball for over number 101 -- and his analysis at the time was 20-2-107-2 (that is, he had already gone in excess of 5 an over). His spell, at a point in the game when it was crucial to slow South Africa down, was 6-0-43-0.

These numbers are glaring, because they underline the lead spinner's failures on two fronts: not only was he unable to take wickets and perform his designated role of sole strike bowler, he was equally unable to stem the flow of runs, tighten the game down, and give his side a chance to get back into things.

If this were an aberration, you could write it off as being one of those days that come even to the best. The problem -- and the unquestioned elephant in the team's living room -- is the fact that Harbhajan's bowling has been in terminal decline for some time now. Since March 2007, he has played 34 Tests in India, and picked up 142 wickets at an average of 36.16 runs per wicket. Significantly, he has played 27 of those Tests in the supposedly spin-friendly conditions of India, and only 7 Tests away from home.

During this period, he has managed one ten wicket haul and five five-wicket hauls, at a glaringly poor strike rate of 75.4 balls per wicket. In other words, it takes him the better part of 13 overs to get a wicket -- a rate that compares unfavorably with Graeme Swann, who has a strike rate of 55.6, or even Shakib-al-Hasan, who has a 67.7 rate. Keep in mind that it is Harbhajan who, on repute, is the better spinner of the three -- and the problem those figures highlight become glaringly obvious. (Incidentally, at the time he retired because he was no longer thought fit to lead the Indian attack, Anil Kumble had a strike rate of 65.9 -- and that high figure is reached only because his last year in Test cricket, 2008, was particularly horrid with the leggie getting a mere 28 wickets at an average of 51.07 and a strike rate of 99.18.).

 
The problem posed by Harbhajan's poor strike rate is further magnified when you consider that Swann, not rated as highly as the Indian offie, has in a relatively shorter career taken a wicket in the first over of a new spell 25 times -- that is to say, when his captain needs a breakthrough, Swann can be counted on to hit the spot straightaway, and to deliver the results his captain is asking for. Not so, clearly, Harbhajan.

 
Parse those figures still further, and you find that in the first innings of a Test, Harbhajan's strike rate slips to 84.7. You could argue that Test wickets in the first innings rarely support spin bowlers -- but consider that Swann's strike rate for the first innings is 63.9, and Shakib's is 55, and even that excuse fails to hold water.

If not as a strike bowler, does Harbhajan work in the holding mode, as a defensive bowler who can tie an end down and allow his bowling partners to attack at the other? The offie has attempted to live that role thanks to his acquired habit of pushing the ball quicker through the air, largely on a middle and leg line, and eschew flight, loop and turn to a large extent.

 
The problem is, it is not working – the recalibrated bowling style has only reduced his effectiveness. Even in the recently concluded home series against an underconfident batting lineup like that of New Zealand, Harbhajan was overshadowed by the likes of Daniel Vettori and Pragyan Ojha, who not only picked up wickets (14 and 12 respectively), but kept things tighter, while Harbhajan was the at the same time the most expensive and least effective of the trio (10 wickets, strike-rate of 91.1 at 2.75 runs per over).

 
Away from home, where his excuses have ranged from Kookaburra balls to unfriendly conditions for spinners, he has leaked runs at 3.01 runs on average, with a strike-rate of 81.1 to go. The Centurion performance, when thanks to the absence of Zaheer Khan the team needed him to step up in the role of lead bowler, was bad even by his own deteriorating standards, with Harbhajan going for 2/184 at 4.69 runs an over.

A related stat: every time Harbhajan concedes over 100 runs in an innings, he does so at a higher economy rate of around 3.19, which indicates that the opposition doesn't really view him as a threat.

 

Harbhajan Under Various Test Captains

 

What further undercuts the "unfriendly conditions" argument is that Swann (21 in 4 Tests) and Shakib (11 in 2 Tests) have both managed to pick up wickets in South African conditions, with each getting two five-fors.
 

There are two ways, two templates, that largely define the role of a spinner. The first is of a slow bowler who comes in on the back of a good opening spell by a quick bowler; the other is of the spearhead of a bowling attack where there is no effective seam/pace bowler to create early inroads.

 
Zaheer Khan is clearly the engine of the Indian pace attack; when he is absent the attack is rendered largely toothless – and that is precisely when you need the frontline spinner to step up. Now consider this: during the last three years, whenever Zaheer has been absent through injury, Harbhajan has managed a grand total of 34 wickets in ten Tests, at a strike rate of 85.5.

 
Five-for hauls are the bowler's equivalent of a batsman's century – and during the period under review, Harbhajan has managed a grand total of 7 five-fors in 34 Tests, or roughly once in every seven Tests.

 
There is, of course, his newly discovered – or rather, newly perfected – batting skills. After Harbhajan's famous century against the Kiwis, his captain MS Dhoni said that now, India could afford the luxury of playing five bowlers, by treating Harbhajan as an all-rounder capable not just of taking wickets, but also providing valuable runs.

 
If that were in fact true, it would be brilliant – what India has lacked since the days of Kapil Dev is a quality all-rounder who can lend balance by filling two roles, and thus allowing the team to effectively field 7 batsmen and 5 bowlers. But those brave words of Dhoni have not in fact been implemented – India continues to pack its batting, with six full time batsmen and MS Dhoni as wicket-keeper batsman. Will the team really depend on Bhajji's batting ability and drop a batsman, play Harbhajan at seven and bring in an additional bowler, say a Pragyan Ojha or Ravichandran Ashwin? Don't hold your breath waiting.

 
By way of aside, my choice would be Ashwin – it is not just that he has taken wickets consistently – what marks him as a stand out is his attacking attitude, his adherence to the off or outside off, and his fearlessness in giving the ball air and inviting batsmen to come after him. Ashwin is by no means the finished article – but he is clearly at a stage where international exposure is the one thing needed to create a finished product.

To go back to the theme of this article – what puzzles me is why Harbhajan's form or lack thereof is not considered worthy of greater debate; why he continues to be deemed an "automatic selection" despite three years of largely mediocre performances. Not so long ago, we used to question Anil Kumble after one bad series – where did that rigor, that analysis, go in the case of Harbhajan?

 
Simply put – what makes him the holy cow of Indian cricket? And how much longer will selectors blindly genuflect at that altar?

 

Harbhajan Over The Years

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