Friday, 8 July 2011

Feisty Harbhajan joins elite club


There have arguably been better spinners than Harbhajan Singh in Test history but on Thursday he became the 11th bowler to take 400 wickets. And that's no mean achievement
In his 96th Test, off his 26,961st delivery, Harbhajan Singh became the 11th man in Test history, and the fourth spinner, to claim 400 wickets. The relief-drenched celebration came out with a pumped fist and a roar. It would have been perhaps even more fitting had it come through a shout for an lbw or a catch as Harbhajan would then have performed his signature backpedal-and-appeal routine.

The mode of celebration was understandable as he was made to wait for the landmark. He needed seven wickets at the start of the series and in the first two Tests, on pitches that suited the seamers, he took five wickets at an average of 35.60. The wait ended today. With Ishant Sharma threatening to run through the tail, Harbhajan removed Darren Sammy with the typical bat-and-pad dismissal he is known for. The ball dipped and bounced as it turned in and Sammy edged his defensive poke to the short-leg fielder. In his next over, he got one to turn in from just outside off and cramped Carlton Baugh for room. Baugh went for the cut, almost stumbled out to the leg side and lost his stumps.

Cameras flashed in the Indian dressing room. Out in the middle, Harbhajan was enveloped by warm hugs from his team-mates. Slowly he extricated himself, walked towards the top of his run-up, placed his right hand on his chest and looked up to the skies.

It's been a common sight through his 13-year career. Often he gives the feeling he is fighting the world. Often you get the feeling the world is fighting against him. It's been a career with heady peaks and puzzling troughs.

Rarely has any other bowler with 400 Test wickets received so much criticism. It's as if his critics expect greatness from him and feel disappointed that he has let them down.

On his bad days his line drifts to leg and middle, the pace is too quick and his attacking instincts evaporate. The critics have a field day announcing the end and then suddenly he shuts them up with a match-winning spell. On his good days he can be a handful. The ball will drift, dip, and bite and batsmen will succumb, unable to contend with the extra bounce and turn. It's as if there are two different bowlers. Other top spinners rarely gave this illusion of split personality. Harbhajan does.

He is a good bowler. Some believe he can be better than good. Some believe he is not as good as he is purported to be. The truth must lie somewhere in the middle. He has confounded his critics through his career. It's often been said that he needs spin-friendly tracks to be effective. However, in his previous two outings away from home, in New Zealand in 2009 and in South Africa in 2010, he has excelled. He was perhaps at his best away from home during that tour of New Zealand. Deploying over spin, side spin, and top spin, he was at the top of his art. The drift he got was mesmerising. A couple of months after that tour, Daniel Vettori named Harbhajan as the bowler whom he admired the most in international cricket.

Later, in the Cape Town Test, a wicketless first innings that had the critics hollering was followed by 7 for 120 in the second. Through his career he has been a different bowler once he's got early wickets. In recent times, he hasn't used the doosra much and has preferred to use the topspinner. It's been a puzzling development.

Today, however, was a day to bask in personal glory. The list of top wicket-taking spinners reads: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh. There might have been better spinners than Harbhajan in Test history but only three others have picked up 400 wickets. And it's no mean achievement. It will be interesting to see how history views him. Will he judged by what he has done or will he be judged by what some think he could have done - what more he could have done?

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