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By Partab Ramchand
If at all the first Test between India and New Zealand proved anything it is that the hosts have great batting depth. A lot has been said and written about the lustrous top order batting order which of course has frequently performed in keeping with its lofty stature. I am not sure whether any team has entered a Test match with the first four in the order averaging fifty plus during an extended career (though of course Gautam Gambhir has since slipped just below the half century mark following his double failure at Ahmedabad).
That the Indian batting is strong enough to carry the weaker bowling has been known for some time but this is generally said keeping in mind the feats of the famed quartet. What is generally forgotten is that MS Dhoni has more than added his mite late in the order and now with Harbhajan Singh joining in it can be said that the Indians bat till No 8. Let it also not be forgotten that Zaheer Khan holds the record for the highest score made at No 11 in Test cricket. In the course of that 75 he added 133 runs with Sachin Tendulkar for the tenth wicket – an Indian record.
When a team can recover from 15 for five to post a total of 266 it can only underline the depth in the batting besides constituting one of the great recoveries in Test cricket. The events at Ahmedabad underlined the fact that there is no cause for worry as far as the Indian batting is concerned. In the first innings the top order performed in keeping with their reputation while in the second the late order came off. There will always be more than one player to stand up and be counted in a crisis.
Harbhajan has frequently spoken about getting a Test hundred and taking his batting seriously. Hardly anyone however took him at his word. That’s because the nature of his batting always had an element of risk. An attacking bowler, Harbhajan tried to adopt the same approach to his batting and though he has met with sporadic success more often than not he could be a pretty embarrassing failure. Now and then he has also spoken of becoming an all rounder but of course there is a long way to go before he achieves that status – if at all.
However, combative cricketer that he is – though he does go overboard with his emotions at times – Harbhajan cannot be dismissed lightly as the New Zealanders discovered. In the first innings even as the innings floundered after some excellent work by the top order it was Harbhajan who kept it going displaying his attacking skills in abundant measure. Second time around of course it was a pressure cooker situation with India 65 for six when he entered late on the fourth evening. But one thing that has always stood Harbhajan in good stead is his aggressiveness, the quality of never being overawed by formidable opposition or a grim situation. He counter attacked as only he can and ere long the hunter became the hunted. That he was responsible for a feat done only once before in 1935 – a century and half century at No 8 – speaks volumes of his never say die attitude and his determination to get to the goals he has set out to achieve.
Unfortunately even as he can be counted upon to serve his team with his growing batting skills his bowling has fallen to an alarming degree. This is a great cause for worry for with Anil Kumble having retired Harbhajan was expected to take on the senior spinner’s role. But the sting has gone from his bowling and his career average less than 28 not too long ago is now approaching 32. The less said about his strike rate the better. It is only to be hoped that his latest batting laurels will not affect his bowling further. The Indian team needs Harbhajan the bowler much more than Harbhajan the batsman his gallant showing at Ahmedabad notwithstanding. Plainly put had his performance with the ball been in keeping with his stature the team would not have required his batting heroics.
For the visitors of course a draw could well be a moral victory considering the fact that they were written off on the eve of the series and a clean sweep for the Indians was generally predicted. To their credit they had the Indians under considerable pressure on the fourth evening before the hosts wriggled out. How much they will regret at missing a trick or two when the Indians were 15 for five could well unfold over the next two Tests.