By Madan Mohan
The march of time is deceptive and gradual, slinking on you ever so stealthily, catching you off guard and pulling the rug from under your feet. To nick a line from a famous rock song on the vagaries of time, you may well one day wake up to find that 10 years have got behind you and nobody told you when to run. If Harbhajan Singh were introduced to Pink Floyd at this juncture of his career, he might just find some chicken soup for the soul there. Nobody seems to have told him he needed to run harder to keep his place.
On India’s tour to West Indies earlier this year, Harbhajan Singh brought up the important milestone of 400 Test wickets, a club with no more than 10 other members. I had then suggested that while it was a fine achievement, he perhaps didn’t quite belong in the same league as legends such as Curtly Ambrose or Shane Warne amongst other members of the club.
Expectedly, not everybody agreed then. But today, as India are playing the West Indies in the second Test of the series, Harbhajan is no longer in the scheme of things. Eventually, Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin have stolen a march over him. It must be noted here that Ashwin got his first Test cap in the series. So the selectors saw fit to give a promising new spinner a go than to persist with Harbhajan. They also did not change the squad for the second Test, rewarding Ojha and Ashwin for an encouraging performance at Delhi. That must worry the feisty Sikh from Jalandhar.
Further, Ojha and Ashwin didn’t exactly ooze brilliance and mastery at Delhi. They did a good job against a weak side, inexperienced in Indian conditions. Does that mean the selectors were not confident Harbhajan could manage the same even against West Indies? In Harbhajan’s defence, he would argue it was a rather soft initiation for Ashwin, where he was launched in a dead rubber against Australia and took on Pakistan in only his fourth Test. Even if that point is taken, why is a spinner only 31 years of age with over 400 Test wickets no longer part of the side (in spite of Harbhajan expressly declaring himself fit for any format of the game, whatever that means)? And why is hardly anybody even faintly surprised about it? Indeed, how is it that the decision to drop a senior player, normally frowned upon in Indian cricket, has been received with vociferous approval?
And that’s where we come back to the march of time. It is a harsh thing to say, but Harbhajan basically brought this upon himself. Having worked hard to seal his place in the side with some fabulous spells against Australia, Harbhajan gradually slipped into a rut and stopped getting better. He ran out of new tricks and failed to suitably update the old ones. And in the age of technology and video analysis, batsmen have sorted him out and read his variations much better than they did when he began his Test career.
For comparison’s sake, Anil Kumble stumped batsmen six times in the 1990s and 18 times in the noughties. It shows that as Kumble’s pace through the air dropped, he learnt to rely more on flight and deception and didn’t lose his effectiveness. Even though he was a bowler who relied more on accuracy than big turn, he was still good enough to bag a five-wicket haul against Australia at Melbourne in 2008. Harbhajan, meanwhile, was not among the wickets.
In fact, match-winning spells have been few and far between for Harbhajan over the last few years. He played an important hand against New Zealand at Hamilton, 2009, South Africa at Kolkata, 2010 and again at Durban in the same year. But at Bangalore against Australia in 2010, Pragyan Ojha was already beginning to give him a run for his money, equalling his match wickets tally and bagging more in the crucial Australian second innings.
We’ll never know just how much Harbhajan was wise to the challenge posed by a new crop of spinners. But his execution has certainly left much to be desired in the last few months and that has culminated in an uncertain outlook for his career in Test cricket.
Spinners are supposed to get better with age. Warne and Kumble certainly did. Even an ageing Muttiah Muralitharan appears to have had more bite than Rangana Herath or Suraj Randiv. Yet, Harbhajan finds himself outclassed and ousted by young upstarts at the very point when he ought to have matured into a master of his craft. The next few years will tell us if he is able to run and catch up with the sun before it sinks on his horizon.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)