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By Partab Ramchand
It’s been a bit of a struggle of late but he has finally got there. Thirteen years after making his Test debut as a precocious 17-year-old against Australia at Bangalore Harbhajan Singh has joined the exclusive club – only the eleventh bowler to take 400 wickets in cricket’s traditional format, only the fourth spinner to do so and only the third Indian to scale this particular summit. At times like these one is tempted to go overboard in praise, lift the player to a level to which he doesn’t belong. After all this is an emotional moment and when one thinks and feels emotionally and doesn’t analyze logically then the cricketer who is the man of the moment gets encomiums he really doesn’t deserve.
So then let’s think logically for once and examine some cold facts and figures. Harbhajan’s overall average, away average, strike rate and economy rate is the worst of the eleven bowlers to have taken 400 wickets. In a way the sheer volume of wickets has lost some of its old gloss with the proliferation of Test cricket. Playing in 100 matches is not uncommon and any specialist bowler worth his salt is expected to take around four wickets a Test. No bowler has sent down as many as 26,961 deliveries - as Harbhajan has done - to take 400 wickets and it is interesting to note that Anil Kumble Harbhajan’s partner for so long is just above the off spinner when it comes to overall average, away average and strike rate.
Where Harbhajan deserves full credit is the manner in which he has overcome obstacles and hurdles. Personal losses, accusations about his actions, controversies about his rather over the board feisty behaviour have been a part of his anything but quiet life but he has displayed the courage and maturity to overcome these and emerge stronger as a bowler and as a person. Taking all the adversity in his stride he formed with Kumble the most potent strike force in Indian cricket since the heady days of the famed spin quartet sharing the spotlight with his senior some days and basking in the glory all by himself on others. He is aggression personified though truth to tell he has crossed the line a few times as his many appearances before the match referee illustrates. He is also honest in his dealings though a bit outspoken on a few occasions. But then Harbhajan has never been afraid of courting controversy while driving home a point he feels is valid.
The enduring Harbhajan image we will always savour is through his wicket taking deliveries – the ball pitching on a good length, turning viciously, bouncing spitefully only for the hapless batsman to fend it off into the waiting hands of the short leg fielder. It is the staple dismissal for an off spinner and the combative sardar has done it ever so often. On prodigious talent, sheer bowling skills and intense competitiveness Harbhajan has been a difficult act to match.
So where does Harbhajan rank among the great Indian spinners? His career may not be over but it is pertinent to ask this question at a moment of great personal success. To be candid he would figure way down in the list. Indian cricket has produced some of the finest specialist spin bowlers to have graced the game and in this intensely competitive field it is no discredit to figure in sixth place. If one considers Vinoo Mankad as an all rounder the first outstanding spin bowler was Subash Gupte who has won the highest praise from none other than Gary Sobers. The spin trio of Bishen Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar and EAS Prasanna has to be up there as also Kumble. Harbhajan probably takes his place next on the list.
But of course the one thing going for Harbhajan is that he is still around. And if the theory that a spin bowler is at his best in his 30s holds good then more successful times are ahead for him. The fact remains that he is the country’s No 1 bowler in all three formats of the game, his aggression and experience making him quite irreplaceable. The good thing from the Indian viewpoint is that the end is nowhere in sight and with age on his side he has the opportunity to better his current record. Indeed one wouldn’t be surprised if he still figures prominently in the scheme of things till almost the end of the second decade of the new millennium.