Two years ago, the usually sprightly Harbhajan Singh had switched into a withdrawal mode. Graeme Smith’s men had trounced India in the Nagpur Test, and a news channel likened the Indian attack to Three Idiots, Harbhajan being one of them.
A dispirited India had to win the next encounter in Kolkata to level the series and retain their No 1 ranking. On the eve of that big game, Harbhajan apparently told a confidant, “Just spread the word that I’ll wipe the smile off their (SA) faces.”
Right, he didn’t express himself as decorously. He wouldn’t be Bhajji if he did. We are told he used the choicest Hindi swearwords that obviously can’t be printed on this space.
What are your memories of that Test? India down to three bowlers and yet winning the contest in fading light? Or Harbhajan’s five-for and those bellowing cheers as if to say: Now we could talk!
Harbhajan is at the Eden Gardens again –– his second home. Kolkata does this to a few cricketers. VVS Laxman and Mohammad Azharuddin have had a karmic bond with this city. Maybe Harbhajan has it too, going by his record here. He had a hat-trick here in the 2001 series against Australia and only twice in seven Tests has he been denied a five-for.
But will he be part of the XI against the Englishmen here? Few years back, this question would have been blasphemy. Not any more. Harbhajan, at this point, is the third spinner and his inclusion for the second Test would be based on how India’s think-tank assesses the Eden wicket.
The buzz is that Harbhajan, regardless of the feats he enjoys here, may have to wait to play his 100th Test. India may like the cover of a second pacer (Ishant Sharma). Not that everything is comfortably stacked in Ishant’s favour. He hasn’t played a Test in 11 months; he might not coax energy out of a moribund strip; his length is usually three-quarter and thereabout which negates the reverse swing.
It is also thought that spin remains India’s best bet despite the Wankhede reversal. The showing of India’s spin triad was dissected to the last detail. But let’s admit it – the Test was also about two scintillating knocks. Take away the gigantic stand between Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook and the rest of England score-card was nothing to rave about.
Harbhajan, lest forgotten, also bowled the least number of overs there. An early wicket spurs him on. Early on the third day at Wankhede, a certain leg-before appeal off Cook was turned down.
Yes, his bowling has changed over the years. John Wright, in Indian Summers, shares his first experience of watching Harbhajan in a camp. He recalls “a skinny, frisky character in a black turban who turned the ball a mile and got more bounce than any spinner I’d ever seen.”
Harbhajan may not have been able to command similar revolutions on the ball since the finger surgery in 2003. The arm speed, which would enable him to extract rattling bounce, is also not as quick as before. What he has developed, meanwhile, is an effective ‘other one’ or the doosra and variations in pace from a slower run-up.
More than the bowling, perhaps, he needs an arm around his shoulder to bring out the Harbhajan that Wright remembers: “Striding out like a Sikh warrior going into battle.” The charge that he gets from Eden Gardens may do the rest.