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Where's the zing, Mr King?

HT looks at the dilemma of Harbhajan Singh, India's ace off-spinner, whose career stands at the crossroads. They're saying | Memorable moments | Topsy-turvy ride

cricket Updated: Oct 03, 2011 01:39 IST
Rohit Bhaskar
Rohit Bhaskar
Hindustan Times

His chest-on delivery stride is far removed from the classical side-on action of off-spin heroes of yore - S Venkataraghavan or Erapalli Prasanna. But it didn't really matter. Harbhajan Singh had his own strengths and used them to telling effect. The ability to extract bounce and bite from the most benign of surfaces was his forte.

The Sardar from Jalandhar was a rare commodity. When on song, he had the aura to leave the best of batsmen nervous. Ask Ricky Ponting. One of the greatest batsmen of all times was his bunny.

True, he didn't have the flight and drift. But as an overall package he was brilliant; teaming up with Anil Kumble, often devastating. Harbhajan may have his flaws, but for the past 13 years his mental fortitude has helped him battle it out. The result? Over 400 Test wickets, another 250-plus in limited-overs.

Harbhajan's combative abilities are well known, but the feisty 31-year-old now faces his biggest battle. The drubbing in England was always going to have repercussions. Although no formal inquest was held, the powers that be needed a fall guy.

Harbhajan did himself no favours with a string of feeble, listless displays in the opening two Tests in England - following which he returned home after aggravating an abdominal strain.

Dropped by the selectors for the first two ODIs of the five-match series against England, he now faces his moment of truth.

Never back down
Harbhajan's bowling may have taken some time to leave a lasting impression, but there was never any doubt about the aggression. The volatile temperament, more associated with fast bowlers, was evident from his early days.

A then 17-year-old Harbhajan was dispatched for a four and a six off successive deliveries by Ricky Ponting during the Coca-Cola Cup at Sharjah in 1998. Fighting back, he got Ponting out stumped.

In a major departure from what was then considered normative behaviour by Indian cricket standards, Harbhajan gave Ponting a send off the Tasmanian has never forgotten. Just to add perspective to that seminal moment in his career, this was the turbaned off-spinner's debut one-day series.

The aggression alone, however, wasn't enough. He needed to channel it properly.

Under Sourav Ganguly, he found a skipper whose own natural aggression approved of the sometimes over-board antics of Harbhajan.

What followed was a major transformation. The 2001 series against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australians was his high point. He ended with 32 wickets in the three-Test series as India scripted an amazing come from behind series triumph.

But Harbhajan of the recent past is not even a shadow of that bowler. So, what is it that went wrong? Former off-spin great Erapalli Prasanna sees it clearly.

"He never had the classical off-spinner's action. His basics are all wrong; his action is too chest-on. What it all comes down to now is mind over body," he told HT.

"At this stage, it's too late for him to change his technique. You can't correct your basics at the international level. He just needs to work with what he's got."

He clearly implied a correction in the attitude was more pertinent than any change in technique. Prasanna's former spin partner Bishan Singh Bedi's has a simple solution - just bowl.

"Harbhajan has to bowl a lot in the nets. You carry your confidence from the nets to the middle. He has to bowl, bowl and bowl. Period. There are no short cuts. He has to bowl three-four hours in the nets. That is how he will get control and rhythm. Once you get that, the confidence will automatically come," he said.

Now or never
Turn the clock back a year, and Harbhajan's name was among the first ones on the team-sheet. The wonderful performance of the team did a good job to mask his decline.

Ever the utility man, he did his own bit to mask his sky-rocketing bowling average - stroking back-to-back Test hundreds against the Kiwis.

Questions of Harbhajan's lack of wickets never left him during the World Cup. He was again in the spotlight in West Indies, where India were forced to draw the last two Tests. In England, big top order partnerships pushed him further into a defensive mindset.

In the end, it only delayed the inevitable. R Ashwin is the man tipped to take over Harbhajan's mantle as the best finger spinner; some feel he already has although Ashwin's wicket-taking abilities in the longer format are untested. "I don't mean to be discouraging but if you are looking for class at present, it is absent. They also know they have a limited role to play, and that is containment. We need wicket-takers," said Bedi, when asked what was holding back the new generation of spinners from earning permanent berths.

Harbhajan's former teammate Javagal Srinath was more supportive. "Spinners generally struggle in England. And then you stick to a pattern and become predictable. If he had played four or five Tests in Indian conditions, things would have been different. He is a fighter and I am sure he will make a strong comeback. I am only worried if he had been informed whether he had been dropped or not, whether there had been any communication between him and the selectors."

Harbhajan finds himself at the crossroads of an illustrious career. Where he goes from now will come down to one thing - desire.

He's just been shown the exit. However, the door is still wide open. With no standout replacement in place, the onus is on him. Will he make his fighting qualities count again?

(Inputs from N Ananthanarayanan)

First Published: Oct 02, 2011 23:42 IST