From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.39 :: Sep. 26, 2009
Harbhajan Singh... at his best he is overwhelming.
Harbhajan Singh has been Indian cricket’s most compelling enigma of the last decade. Just 29, he has 330 Test wickets and 216 ODI wickets, suggesting there’s greatness in the making. But before last August he hadn’t imposed his will on contests as often as a bowler of his immense physical talent is expected to. He had had moments of course — moments where he had shown mastery of his craft and that special ability to make things happen. But there had been other occasions, which had constituted a large part of his career, where he had seemed listless, unimaginative, and inclined to the defensive when attacked.
The least charitable of his critics — and of these there are many, for he inspires extreme reactions — argued that he was an average bowler with an acute awareness of when cheap wickets could be had; he had, they reasoned, made the most of India’s leanness of spin talent to build his career. There is little truth in this argument, but even his strongest supporters will concede that Harbhajan hasn’t fulfilled his potential.
Fortunately the signs over the last year have been encouraging. The reading of these signs requires a précis however, and it will be ventured hereforth. At his best, Harbhajan is overwhelming, his bowling charged with an energy not common to a spinner. Although not classical in delivery or method, the off-spinner has customised the craft to suit his strengths: the snap in his action allows him access to large quantities of over-spin, and consequently abrupt dip and sharp bounce. His greatest strength is his ability to find turn at a pace quicker than the classical off-spinner. The result is a weighted, whip-lashed off-break whose flight is tauter than convention — but not flat.
But the profusion of overs-specific cricket — and his team’s demands in these versions — seemed to turn him into a bowler more intent on economy than creative attack. The yorker, speared in at indecorous speed so it slipped under the batsman’s bat-swing, became his stock in trade. That it served the purpose seemed to cost his bowling — a spinner’s action is always vulnerable to bad habits; when thrown so spectacularly out of whack as is the case when yorkers have to be cranked out, the exertions of delivery can wear out the action’s groove.
The precis out of the way, let’s read the signs. A pivotal event occurred during the Galle Test last August. Harbhajan registered his first 10-wicket haul outside India, but it was the manner more than the achievement that was significant. Several of the themes of that performance have since repeated both in Test and one-day cricket (and to a lesser degree in Twenty20 cricket as well). His willingness to explore the option of attacking from around the wicket, not something he had embraced in the past, was striking.
It’s a method that was used to excellent effect in New Zealand and the recently concluded Compaq Cup tri-series. From this angle, his wrist-spun doosra doubled in potency. Harbhajan’s slant from over the wicket, arising from a tendency not to get close to the stumps, doesn’t always do the delivery justice. In one-day cricket, with the batsmen keen to score, the doosra from over the wicket has claimed victims, for they are apt to reach for the ball. But quality Test batsmen, who saw it for what it was from the hand, often left it on line. But it wasn’t as easy from around the wicket, particularly when the ball pitched on middle and off, for the batsman had then to play. The batsman had no way to estimate how the surface would take spin, so every stroke made when not to the pitch of the ball was one of hopeful speculation. The angle from around also made more perilous the off-break that having failed to land on the seam skids on.
Harbhajan hasn’t merely varied his angle of attack over the last year. He has varied flight and trajectory as well, slowing his deliveries so they have time to establish a grip in the soil loosened by the bowlers’ footfalls. In Sri Lanka recently, it was this tendency that was most marked. Brought on to arrest Sanath Jayasuriya’s rapid getaway in the league match of the Compaq Cup, Harbhajan aired his off-breaks like moth-eaten eiderdowns during spring cleaning. At times, he simply advanced the point of release so the delivery had loop.
Harbhajan has also employed to great effect the top-spinner, bowled by hooking his index finger across a straight seam so it comes out of his hand with every opportunity to land on the seam and skip. On occasion he has scrambled the seam instead of canting it at the off-break’s angle so it does little off the straight. One such delivery, quickened on its way, fetched the vital wicket of the plundering Tillakaratne Dilshan in the final of the Compaq Cup.
The numbers confirm this improvement. Before the Galle Test, he had in the three preceding years taken his wickets at nearly 38 runs (average) and 12 overs (strike-rate) per wicket. In his last 10 Tests (including Galle) he has 53 wickets at an average of 25.58 and a strike-rate of 59.8 (which translates to less then 10 overs). In ODIs this year, his average and strike-rate are 29.71 and 32.9 respectively, which are a noteworthy improvement over the previous three years (average: 36.53; strike-rate: 50.3).
It’s tempting to hypothesise that Harbhajan is back on track, his misdemeanours of the past (the Symonds affair, Slapgate) behind him. To do so would be simplistic; there is no way to establish causality. (Besides, his bowling wasn’t any more off-track during these episodes than it was just prior to it).
It does appear, however, that he is more comfortable in his bowling skin these days. The insecurity has faded. As a result, he has bowled with greater freedom; he is not as deeply dismayed when hit. Not only has he been better able to shape contests, he has also been able to handle the responsibility of being India’s lead spinner in all formats. If he manages more of the same, trusting his physical skill over the doubting voice of the mind, greatness will be his.
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