Even allowing for the greater number and variety of international matches played, the cliche about spinners still holds: they mature late.
By Suresh Menon
A day after the second Test against the West Indies at Barbados ended in a draw, Harbhajan Singh turned 31. Even allowing for the greater number and variety of international matches played, the cliché about spinners still holds: they mature late. Harbhajan’s one-time partner in crime, the great Anil Kumble played 71 Tests after the age of 31, picked up 343 wickets and at a better strike rate than in his previous Tests. Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne too have similar records, their strike rates improving with age.
Yet if Harbhajan hopes to match those figures, he will have to give his bowling some serious thought. With India chasing victory on the fourth day of the first Test on a track that was assisting the bowlers, Harbhajan struggled. By spearing the ball in he appeared to have compromised on his craft, his role now to keep the runs down rather than claim wickets. The signs have been clear for some time now. Harbhajan, the man who once had 32 wickets in a three-Test home series against Australia, appears like a confused teenager, and never mind if he has played 95 Tests and is only two wickets short of 400.
Harbhajan has been consciously avoiding the doosra for some time now, which is a fine thing. It has caused his action to be questioned in the past. But in the bargain he is struggling to bowl the off break. Perhaps his success in the first Twenty20 World Cup (which India won) is turning into a curse now.
It is unlikely that even after his mediocre showing in the series so far (five wickets spread over four innings in 68 overs), he will be dropped for the final Test this week. Incumbents, especially bowlers who have claimed lots of wickets in the past, are usually given another chance to fail. And with India leading, and a series in England to follow, Harbhajan needs to be given a chance to rediscover himself.
To find the route that made him a world class off spinner, Harbhajan might have to give up the shorter formats of the game. There is little doubt that one-day cricket and T20 have reduced his effectiveness in Test cricket. It is unlikely that he will take that step, though. For one, he is a fiercely combative player who will see any such move as an admission of defeat. For another, he loves to bowl, and cannot contemplate lean periods, especially if he believes (as he has in the past) that all problems can be solved in the running, as it were. That is, by playing as much as possible.
Apart from the limited-overs bowling, it is the limited-overs mentality that is restricting Harbhajan’s effectiveness. In the shorter formats, there is no room for planning or laying traps, and if something doesn’t happen very quickly, the pressure is on the bowler.
When he started his career, and then began to be successful he was criticised for not being Erapalli Prasanna – a rite of passage all Indian spinners have had to go through since the Quartet of Prasanna, Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Venkatraghavan retired – before it was conceded that he is a different type of bowler altogether.
With an action resembling a windmill winding down, he had to be watched at all times for his ability to control the spread of the off break without any apparent change in his action. Bounce was another factor, as Ricky Ponting, whom he regularly dismissed, kept rediscovering.
Harbhajan was 18 when he made his Test debut and has packed into the 13 years since more cricket than the Quartet did during its two-decade spread. With Kumble he has taken over a thousand Test wickets, which is significantly greater than the 853 the Quartet had among them.
With that experience and that record, it would be a pity if Harbhajan made the wrong choice at this critical stage in his career. For, as history has shown, it may be that the best is yet to come.