Willow Talk: Dr V. V. Giri Looks at Harbhajan Singh

MCA continues its series of commentaries from distinguished former first-class cricketer and elite coach Dr V. V. Giri, whose reflections today are on the current form of Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh. India fans are deeply disappointed by their team’s heavy defeats in the first two Test Matches of the current England tour, and, while Sehwag’s return will have delighted them, the somewhat eccentric (in format) two-day match against Northants brought plenty of joy to the money men at Wantage Road but little pleasure to any Indian supporter looking at the score card. Further bad news has followed: not only are Harbhajan and Yuvraj Singh out of the tour, but India’s top pace man, Zaheer Khan, has also been withdrawn. With the third Test Match at Edgbaston starting on Wednesday, there is plenty of cause for concern, although England supporters will also be alarmed that Jonathan Trott is injured, and will be hoping that the mercurial Ravi Bopara of Essex will bring his A game to Birmingham. As ever, there will be plenty to talk about at the MCA nets…


Off-spinner to half the spinner…

What’s happening to the “Turbanator” these days? Just one wicket in the recently concluded Trent Bridge test for 200+ runs!!

If you ask me the real reason for this ‘Naughty’gam defeat, I would squarely blame the Indian bowlers.

Those who watched the test match in TV will certainly agree with me. The conditions were for the bowlers. The ball was swinging madly and the bounce was just unpredictable. When a bowler of Praveen Kumar’s caliber and pace was able to produce such a delivery that ‘took off’ suddenly and damaged the left (top) hand of the right hand batsman Swann, well, this wicket was a volcano.

On such a wicket and in such conditions our pace bowlers, except for PK, allowed the English team to recover from 120 for eight to 221 all out in the first innings. In the second, England scored a massive 544 when the conditions were the same. Praveen was able to worry the batsmen with his swing, but his lack of pace went against him.

What were Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth doing in these conditions? They let the Indian side down badly. If they had bowled even 25% of what the English bowlers did, we could have given some fight in this match. Both were bowling like school boys without line, length, pace, swing or effort. We witnessed nothing more than mediocre bowling.

When you analyze the match, this spineless Indian bowling was the main reason for the debacle. The batting was tough. This we noticed in England’s first innings and during both Indian outings. The wicket was unplayable. Even the seasoned campaigner Dravid struggled throughout. So, once again, our boys proved that without Zaheer, Indian bowling is nil.

In this match, Harbhajan could not have done anything special, but my concern today is his recent form and ability. He is not the same Bhajji we have seen until this year.

In his last 14 Tests, Harbhajan has picked up just one five-for and 50 wickets at 40.60 apiece. And those wickets include a very high percentage of lower-order batsmen

It was 2001 when Team India scripted one of the most remarkable comebacks in Test cricket history. Australia toured India for a three-match Test series and were beaten 1-2, from a point where it looked like they would conquer their “final frontier.”

A young off-spinner by the name Harbhajan Singh was making a return to the Test squad after a gap of more than a year. His series tally of 32 wickets, coupled with VVS Laxman’s heroics with the bat, helped India beat Steve Waugh’s Australia and usher in a new era in Indian cricket. India found a new hero and the fans felt that they could look beyond Anil Kumble for a world class spinner.

I don’t really believe statistics, but I just want to mention the difference in performance then and now.

Ten years on, that same off-spinner has played more than 90 Test matches and has picked up more than 400 wickets. However, over the last year his performances have gone down and he hasn’t shown the effectiveness that he displayed so consistently in his career.

As one of the celebrated commentators might say “this man only looks like Harbhajan but doesn’t bowl anything like him.” The “Turbanator” has started bowling a lot flatter, which has meant the turn, the flight and the doosra have all-together disappeared.

This article dwells deep into his performances over the last year to find out what has gone wrong.

Here are his Test match career stats to date:

Tests   Wkts     Avg  5WI   10WM        Inngs
97   405    32.13      25        5          8-84 15-217

At a glance, one may say that these figures are pretty impressive and the mark of a fantastic bowler. However, they do not tell the entire story — they hide his performance over the last year, when he has been a truly disappointing for a strike bowler. There has been a massive downward slide in Harbhajan’s performance since the Galle Test against Sri Lanka in July 2010.

Here are his stats before and after that Test match. These numbers do tell the real story and do not paint a pretty picture:

  Tests Wkt Avge 5WI 10WM Inngs best             Match best
Before Galle 2010 83 355 30.94 24 5 8/84 15/217
After Galle 2010 14* 50 40.60 1 0 7/120 7/195

*Including the Lord’s Test against England

In his last 14 Test matches, Harbhajan has averaged almost ten runs more than before the Galle Test match. As a result, his overall career average has risen from 30.94 to 32.13. In this period he has picked up just one five-wicket haul — against South Africa at Cape Town.

Prior to Galle 2010, a five-wicket haul used to come at an interval of about three Test matches. An average of 40.60 indicates that he is conceding far too many runs per wicket – not something one expects from a premier spinner.

Another alarming fact about his bowling over the last year has been the high percentage of lower order batsmen he has been dismissing. There can be the odd series where the percentage of lower order dismissals is high, but to maintain it over a year is not a good sign for any bowler. Here is a series-by-series break-down — excluding the ongoing England-India series — of his dismissals, to indicate the high percentage of lower-order wickets. For the purpose of this article, top order batsmen constitute the top five of a batting line-up and the lower order constitute the rest. However, night-watchmen, irrespective of where they have batted, have been considered to be a part of the lower order, and the effective downward shift of the other batsmen in the batting order hasn’t been considered. These batsmen have been deemed to have batted at their original spots. Here it is:

Versus T Wkts No 1-5 No 6-11 %age of lower
order wkts
Sri Lanka 2 2 2 0 0%
Australia 2 11 6 5 45.45%
NZ 3 10 5 5* 50%
SA 3 15 8 7** 46.67%
WI 3 11 4 7 63.63%

*Gareth Hopkins walked in as night watchman in the third Test.

**Paul Harris was the night watchman in the third Test.

The worrying factor for India is that the percentage in question is consistently over the 45% mark and, in fact, hit 63% in the recent series against the West Indies. Thus, his isn’t very effective against the top-order batsmen. And the lower order batsmen include the tailenders as well. It is his fast spinners – if you may call them spin – that are getting them out, but they aren’t any cause of worry to the top five.

India play with four specialist bowlers in their line-up. The fact that they lack a quality all-rounder puts even more responsibility on the four bowlers. Currently, Harbhajan’s performance is hurting team India as he isn’t picking up important wickets. This adds to the pressure on the likes of Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan. Because of his ineffectiveness with the old ball, the fast bowlers have to pull a rabbit out of the hat. India can ill afford a strike bowler who is consistent at being inconsistent. A strike bowler is in the side to pick up wickets and not just roll his arm over to fill in the overs.

People may argue that he has 400 wickets to his name, but the bowler who has 400 wickets today and the one who had 355 wickets a year ago are two different players. The missing player has to return or the so-called “spinner” has to be replaced.

Harbhajan Singh came under severe criticism from Wasim Akram for his performance at Lord’s with the former Pakistan captain calling for the inclusion of leg-spinner Amit Mishra in his place. This was before Nottingham test. Now I am sure the entire nation will support Akram.

“Harbhajan looked off-colour at West Indies as well as at Lords & Trent Bridge. He got very little spin, his line was also very bad. On the other hand, Graeme Swann bowled beautifully though he didn’t get many wickets. [Because the fast bowlers were stealing the show]. He showed a lot of variation,”

“I do not remember one occasion when he bowled a bad ball. I think it’s about time that Mishra came in. English batsmen have traditionally been poor against leg-spinners. Besides, Mishra is a very intelligent bowler. I saw him bowling in the IPL and he impressed me a lot.  To cut it short, Mishra should play in the next match,”

Harbhajan should go back to domestic matches, work hard, and get back his guile and rhythm.
If India want to win Test matches consistently, especially in foreign conditions, they need to have five bowlers in the team. But the main worry for the Indian team management is that having a fifth bowler in the team would put extra pressure on the six batsmen. In such a case, it will augur well if there is an all-rounder in the team, who can reduce the pressure on the strike bowlers Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar and bat at No. 6 or 7.

A good prospect for the all-rounder spot would be Irfan Pathan, who made his debut as swing bowler; under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy he found a hidden strength in the form of his batting. He has also scored a century in Test cricket against Pakistan in 2007.

With an all-rounder like Yuvraj Singh or Irfan Pathan, the Indian team will not only be able to distribute the workload judiciously amongst the bowlers, but also strengthen the batting line-up; and hence find the right balance in the team. Indian team should try those two prospects for the all-rounder spot to bring equilibrium to the team.

“When one door closes, another opens. But we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

A teary eye cannot help clear vision. As the dust settles, Indian cricket fans on social media platforms have expectedly gone into an overdrive with their chest-beating and berating ot the Indian cricket team’s performance against England. There cannot be any arguments that what matters in the end is the final result and fans have a legitimate reason to be upset about the defeat in the first Test.

But if a holistic and unemotional view is taken of the match, Indian cricket fans would derive some satisfaction from the enormous gains from a losing Test.

Zaheer Khan’s value to the Indian attack is far greater than Sachin Tendulkar’s batting to the Indian line-up. While Tendulkar has world class support, Zaheer is the lone & long ranger on whom the Indian attack and hopes revolve. When he walked away on Day One with a hamstring injury, India were fighting an unequal battle in the Test.

I understand both Harbhajan and Yuvraj are not available for the reminder of the series due to “Injuries”!! But the good news is Zaheer and Sehwag are likely to play the third test.

 The Turbanator is out, but “The Terminators” are back! And that’s awesome news for a team that is in dire need of quality players.

Dr. V.V.Giri


1 Comment

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One response to “Willow Talk: Dr V. V. Giri Looks at Harbhajan Singh

  1. Pingback: MCA Schedule, 10-13 August; Other News | Michigan Cricket Academy

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