Harbhajan Singh will walk out tomorrow in Chennai with the weight of fifthteen years of Test cricket behind him and will be wearing his one hundredth (floppy) cap.
Of course the whole tradition of a cap awarded for each appearance is an antiquated and defunct one, but I just quite liked the image of one hundred floppy sunhats lining the floors of the Singh mansion.
I’m writing this piece as a little tribute to the third highest Test wicket taker in Indian history; the tenth highest Test wicket taker of all time and the man who puffs his chest out more than any other cricketer alive. Graeme Swann may attempt to lay claim to that title, but Harbhajan has been being gloriously arrogant for a decade and a half and knows how to wind up his teammates, the entirety of Australia and most likely himself too.
I’ve always adored the man. Like most adolescents, I did my utmost to mimic the bowling actions and batting stances of many players on the tarmac arena that was my Lord’s and MCG. The wily art of off spin was my chosen weapon against my dear friend’s homespun, and not recommended, batting technique. Unsurprisingly, I attempted to echo the run up and delivery of Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh: the two most successful exponents of the off-break in the modern game (and statistically, ever).
To this day, when I bowl, I feel like Murali. I have the same jaunty, angled jog to the crease; I gently spin the ball in the deep of my left palm before launching into my delivery stride, and I still bowl a mean (il)legal doosra which, if it pitches on anything like the line and length I have aimed for, deceives most.
When I bowl, I do so in the knowledge that though I see myself as a six-foot tall Murali, I must look more like Richard the Third tackling the 110 meter hurdles.
I never had any success trying to mimic Harbhajan’s action, because more so than Murali, Bhaji’s approach and means to delivering the ball depends so greatly on rhythm and synchronicity; on economy of movement. So much of Murali’s unique skill came in that final pivot, in the revolutions imparted on the ball from the pistons of shoulder, elbow and wrist. Harbhajan, when bowling at his best, is a purely classical off spinner; Muralitharan was not, he was a genius and a freak. Harbhajan Singh toyed with the doosra (but couldn’t deliver the variation in a legal manner which makes me feel a lot better about my own inadequacies), but has always relied on the off spinner’s tried and tested arsenal of flight, drift, appreciable turn and bounce.
Harbhajan’s arms become mad with motion, his limp wrists flailing as he prances to the crease. His high arms mean that the height he releases the ball from is far above that of the average spinner, thus garnering plentiful natural bounce. This bounce has often been the crucial aspect of his success. England proved on their recent tour to India, that pitches offering prodigious but slow spin can be negated by patient application and concentration. When a pitch offers variable bounce, spin bowlers must bow down and bless whatever Gods they believe in; for Harbhajan those twenty two yards become manna from Heaven.
Harbhajan Singh’s trademark dismissal is the ball that spits at the right-handed batsmen’s glove from a good length like scolding oil from a frying pan. One needs only look at the 2001 series against Australia, his defining hour, to see Harbhajan’s excellence on display. It is beyond doubt that he is not the bowler he was when he first came onto the international scene. The flight and drift that teased and tempted batsmen has given way to a flatter, straighter line and length due to the demands ODI and T20 cricket. To simply cast aside Bhaji though is to ignore some of the fine performances he has contributed to the Indian Test side in the last three years, none more so than the match winning 5/59 against South Africa in 2010. A great list of his finest hours can be found here:
Yet here he finds himself, preparing for just his second Test in nearly eighteen months. The Indian board have begun to feel the pressure of the media and are slowly beginning to implement a policy favouring youth over the ageing stars of glories past. Harbhajan was cast aside in favour of Ravi Ashwin and Praghan Ojha, or arguably more directly due to the former. His irresistible record against the Australian team (taking his wickets against them on Indian soil at 24 runs apiece) seems to have earned him selection alone, but his re-call also serves as a worrying sign for Ashwin, who was largely found out by the English batsmen.
Bhaji has not been shy in vocally pushing his hopes for a further fifty caps, but tomorrow, we shall all raise our glasses to a fine bowler and a fierce competitor. Let’s all hope he can re-discover his flight and maintain his antagonistic nature for a few more years yet.