Off track... Harbhajan Singh's reputation has taken a considerable beating in recent times. The series against England will see sharp comparison with the in-form Graeme Swann © Getty Images
Off track… Harbhajan Singh’s reputation has taken a considerable beating in recent times. The series against England will see sharp comparison with the in-form Graeme Swann © Getty Images

 

By Nishad Pai Vaidya

 

The England vs India series is hyped up as the Battle of the Equals, a true test for the No 1, in some people’s mind, the final of the World Championship of Test cricket. The Test series starts in just two days time. Most of the news and the hype surrounding this series have been about the Indian batting and the English fast bowling. However, there is one factor in this series that has not quite got the attention it deserves. This factor can play a very decisive role in the series but has gone almost unnoticed when compared to the attention the fast men have got.

 

The art in question is off-spin. Both Harbhajan Singh and Graeme Swann have the kind of Test record that cannot be taken lightly. They could well be crucial to their respective team’s fortunes. If one compares the two off-spinners on current form and performance, Swann is the clear winner. He is not only ranked No 1 in the ICC ODI Bowler Rankings but also occupies the second spot in the Test rankings. Since his Test debut in 2008 against India at Chennai, he has been very consistent and has delivered quite a few match-winning spells for England. His career stats are very impressive and suggest that he has been consistent.

 

Here are Swann’s numbers:

 

Matches

Wickets

Average

Strike-rate

Best

5WI

32

140

27.72

57.5

6/65

10

 

Since his debut in India, England have toured West Indies, South Africa, Bangladesh and Australia. In West Indies, South Africa and Bangladesh he was successful as he picked wickets consistently. When England toured Australia for the Ashes, he didn’t pick up too many wickets, but bowled a very crucial spell in an English victory at Adelaide.

 

On all these tours he has shown that he has the ability to pick up wickets and turn the ball in different conditions. Even on his debut he was able to create problems for Indian batsmen in their own backyard. The world knows about Indian batsmen’s prowess against spin but Swann wasn’t just another spinner. In his first over in Test cricket he picked up the wickets of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid.

 

Fast forward to the Cardiff Test in 2011, a match that is mainly remembered for the way Chris Tremlett bundled out Sri Lanka. However, Swann’s figures of four for 16 were equally crucial. Like their Indian counterparts, Sri Lankan batsmen are known to play spin brilliantly. On a track where runs were scored aplenty, Swann turned the ball, gave it air and also got drift to deceive the batsmen. The ball that got the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara was a beauty. Swann coming around the wicket gave the ball a bit of air and it drifted into Sangakkara. The Sri Lankan was playing forward, but it turned viciously to take his edge and land into the hands of first slip. If he can deceive in such a manner a batsman of the class of Sangakkara, he can certainly do it against India.

 

A lot has been said about Harbhajan Singh’s form and wicket-taking ability in recent times. Off late, he has bowled a lot flatter and faster through the air. He also doesn’t get as much turn as he used to get in his early days. However, when he flights the ball he is back to his wicket-taking best. In the Indian Premier League Season 4, he picked up a five wicket haul against the Chennai Super Kings. The reason for his success was that he was giving the ball air which made it difficult for the batsmen to read.

 

The Harbhajan and the 400-wicket club debate has been going on since the Dominica Test and thus in this article we won’t have a look at his career stats but only his numbers against England and in England.

 

Here is a table of his stats against England (overall) and in England:

 

Matches

Wkts

Avge

5WI

Best

11  vs England

41

33.97

3

5/51

3 vs England in England

12

34.16

1

5/115

 

When you look at Harbhajan’s stats against England, you would say that they are decent. But he has played only three Tests in England as he wasn’t picked for the 2007 tour. His bowling average against England is just two points more than his career average which shows that he hasn’t been very effective against them as he has been against Australia. If India are to win the series, Harbhajan needs to play a pivotal role.

 

When Harbhajan tosses the ball up, the batsmen find it difficult to predict the length. As a result they may either wait for the ball to come to them or charge towards the ball. If the batsman fails to execute his plan, Harbhajan’s trap is successful. This is what he used to do quite often but hasn’t done it as consistently in the recent past.

 

Harbhajan needs to rekindle his old guile in England if he has to give good support to Zaheer Khan and the other pacers. He should flight the ball more and cut down on his fast off-breaks. If Swann can deceive batsmen with flight and turn on English surfaces, then even Harbhajan should be able to do it and people know he can do it.

 

The big question is: Will he do it?

 

(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)