By Nishad Pai Vaidya
The “Turbanator” is back!
Harbhajan Singh announced his return to international wicket with a match-winning spell of four for 12 against England at the ICC World T20 2012. A selection that was widely considered controversial – even illogical – has produced results, as the off-spinner wasted no time in making a quick impression. It wasn’t the number of wickets he took, but the way he bowled that would have delighted cricket lovers – giving the ball copious air and, more importantly, extracting turn off the surface.
When India’s squad for the ICC World T20 2012 was announced, the selection of Yuvraj Singh stole most of the limelight. However, Harbhajan’s comeback wasn’t received well as he has been a shadow of the bowler he once was. The lovely loop, inviting and deceptive flight and vicious turn had altogether vanished from his armoury. Instead, he started darting them into the blockhole and became all too predictable.
With the advent of T20 cricket, many bowlers aim at restricting the flow of runs instead of attacking the batsmen. The general belief that did the rounds was that the pressure would force the batsman to try something different and that would result in a wicket. To see a bowler of Harbhajan’s calibre resort to such strategies was very surprising – particularly when his biggest asset was attacking the batsmen. He is at his best when he controls proceedings and deceives the batsmen with his bag of tricks.
As time progressed, that strategy invariably spilled into Test and one-day cricket. The Harbhajan who was once a prolific wicket-taker was clearly missing in action. With those darts fired on the legs – devoid of any variations – the batsmen started picking him well and had no difficulty dealing with him. After a point in time, it also became obvious that his reputation was keeping him in the side and shielding him from the axe.
Harbhajan was ultimately axed after the disastrous tour of England and he returned to scene against the same opposition more than a year later. It was an inspiring performance on comeback – one that completely trumped England and denied them a chance of a comeback. India’s ace Ravichandran Ashwin was rested for the game as Mahendra Singh Dhoni opted to test various squad members. The pressure on Harbhajan and Piyush Chawla would have been immense as this could have been their only chance to make an impression before Ashwin returns to the fold.
The Harbhajan of the old was on display as the classical off-spinner was back. He picked up his first wicket off his second delivery – a ball that went with the arm and castled Eoin Morgan. The deception was evident as Morgan was shaping to cut the ball and the ball held its line to hit the middle stump. Throughout the innings, he maintained a good line whereby he targeted the off-stump. The ball would pitch outside and then turn towards the off-stump. He combined that with good variations – some of them were fired in, while there were a few that were given air.
Jos Buttler was foxed in the flight as Harbhajan got the ball to turn enough and hit the stumps as the batsman attempted a extravagant stroke. The wicket that may have given Harbhajan the most satisfaction would have been of his opposite number - Graeme Swann. Scalping the wicket of a competitor – who is the best off-spinner in the world after Saeed Ajmal – with the trademark doosra would have been genuine delight. Swann failed to read the doosra and was stumped by MS Dhoni.
Harbhajan’s performance has given India greater options in the tournament. Prior to this game, the spinning options India had – barring Ashwin – wasn’t inspiring. Harbhajan was poor during the Indian Premier League (IPL), though he found some form in county cricket, whereas Chawla’s past record doesn’t make a good reading. Dhoni can now look at his squad and consider playing five bowlers in the crucial Super Eight encounters.
Now that Harbhajan has performed, it is imperative that one doesn’t read too much into it and draw conclusions for the future. In the context of the World T20, it makes perfect sense to assume that Harbhajan would be in the scheme of things and a serious contender for a spot in the playing eleven. However, it is far too early to say that he can work his way back into the squads for the longer formats. A performance in T20 cricket is by no means a criterion for selection into Test squad or even the One-Day International (ODIs) team, for that matter.
In 2011, Harbhajan performed well in the Champions League T20 (CLT20) and the Challenger Trophy – two tournaments that followed the England tour. Despite those encouraging performances, he failed to maintain that form in the Ranji Trophy and his struggles continued into the IPL 2012. In the present scenario, one mustn’t get carried away and must keep the past in mind. Harbhajan has to perform consistently and raise the bar with each passing game. To get back into the Test quad, a stint in domestic cricket would be advisable as success there would hold him in good stead for the classical format.
For now, Harbhajan can celebrate and Dhoni can breathe a huge sigh of relief!
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)