Harbhajan Singh did not have another magical series such as the one in 2001 against Australia © AFP
Harbhajan Singh did not have another magical series such as the one in 2001 against Australia © AFP

 

By Adrian Meredith

 

A week ago, Harbhajan Singh took his 400th Test wicket and in so doing joined an elite club; he is just the 11th bowler in Test history to take 400 or more wickets.

 

But how does he compare with the 10 above him on that list?

 

Muralitharan‘s 800 is miles ahead of his contemporaries and, so long as you don’t think he is a chucker, it is hard to ignore him as one of the best of all time. Whether he is the absolute best is debatable, but he is certainly up there. The fact that he took them in so few matches and the fact that he rarely had any other bowlers of note to support him just adds to his achievement. He regularly bowled almost half of the overs in the entire match, and yet was rarely injured, rarely tired and maintained his professionalism. And to top it, he was a nice guy as well.

 

Shane Warne‘s 708 had him briefly topping the all-time wicket taking tally and he is probably the best spinner Australia has produced. Even now, four years after his retirement, he could easily walk straight into the Australian Test team. Sir Don Bradman listed Warne as one of his five cricketers of the century, alongside Adam Gilchrist and Sachin Tendulkar of modern-day players. Richie Benaud’s best XI of all time also featured Warne. Warne’s first ball in England, in only his second ever series – having faced India in his first series – had Mike Gatting bowled around his legs in what is described as “Ball of the century”.

 

Anil Kumble took 619 wickets, but for large sections of his career was somewhat of a plodder. He was a lot more dangerous in India than overseas and seemed to get so many wickets largely because of the length of his career rather than his skill level.

 

Glenn McGrath took 563 wickets and in the end had a good average to go with it, but many of the wickets were due to intimidation, especially towards the end of his career, where batsmen almost got themselves out. Warne had some of this too, though Warne was more about trickery and they combined to give each other wickets just due to the mental domination. By himself, McGrath would never have managed close to as many as he did with Warne as support, but nonetheless he was quite a good bowler.

 

Courtney Walsh managed 519 wickets, but this was a case of longevity beating quality, as his regular bowling partner Curtly Ambrose was far superior yet barely managed 400 wickets. Walsh was very ordinary early in his career, but after the bottom fell out of West Indian cricket, Walsh was the only decent bowler left and he took up the responsibility. Towards the end of his career, Walsh had some of that intimidation effect going, and got a lot of wickets thanks to combining with Ambrose. This was probably the case earlier in his career too, when the likes of Malcolm Marshall helped Walsh to get wickets when batsmen were slogging it. Rarely thought of in “best bowler of all time” discussion, he nonetheless held the most wickets record as at when he retired.

 

Kapil Dev managed 434 wickets and, at one point, surpassed Sir Richard Hadlee as Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker. Kapil played a long time after he past his best,  seemingly putting his personal records ahead of the team. Kapil is generally regarded as the worst of the four great all-rounders of the 1980s – the other three being Hadlee, Imran Khan and Ian Botham. But he did have his moments.

 

Hadlee only managed 431 wickets in spite of playing for some 16 years, yet this was largely because the New Zealand team of his time was so weak that few teams would play against them. Through Hadlee, New Zealand became better and according to retrospective rankings they were ranked as high as third ,but they were never regarded as particularly strong, in spite of beating Australia in Australia in a Test series for the first time. Hadlee was a marvelous bowler who didn’t have the luxury of the intimidation factor that the likes of McGrath or Walsh had, nor did he have the luxury of having other good support bowlers. Going solo, like Murali did later, Hadlee did it all himself and on several occasions won New Zealand matches basically by himself by also having to do a fair portion of the batting as well. Yet he managed it in style. Lance Cairns and later Martin Crowe sometimes helped, but for the most part it was all Hadlee and the fact that he did so well makes him an all-time great, certainly the best player in New Zealand’s history.

 

Shaun Pollock managed 421 wickets and came in just after South Africa had returned from apartheid, during a turbulent time. He had the luxury of being one of three great all-rounders in the same side, alongside the hit-or-miss Lance Klusener and the great Jacques Kallis. And yet Pollock was clearly the best of the three, at least during most of his tenure. Pollock combined well with Allan Donald in what was a fierce bowling attack and was for a long time ranked second or first in the overall rankings, and this on top of him scoring Test centuries and sometimes batting as high as No 6. He also had the burden of captaining his side after Hansie Cronje admitted to match fixing, but then lost the captaincy after he misunderstood the Duckworth-Lewis instructions in a World Cup match that ultimately led to South Africa failing to qualify for the next stage. Nonetheless, he was a great bowler and one of the greatest-ever players for South Africa.

 

Wasim Akram managed 414 wickets. He started under Imran Khan’s tutelage but later came into his own. He made a lethal combination with Waqar Younis. Yet the two had a hostile relationship for a while. Akram was ultimately embroiled in the match fixing scandal after he had retired and suffered a seemingly meaningless ban (since he had already retired). He had a lot of support with other great bowlers like Imran Khan and Waqar Younis around, during a time when Pakistan had probably the best bowling attack in world cricket. Nonetheless, considering the omnipresent turmoil in Pakistan cricket, his achievements have to be admired. His batting was strong enough for him to be considered an all-rounder.

 

Curtly Ambrose managed 405 wickets and yet was far superior to his teammate Courtney Walsh who managed 519, but this is a prime example of quality vs quantity. Ambrose could do it by himself and, while he did have Walsh and briefly Bishop to support him, it was enough that Ambrose was there. He had intimidation going, but he didn’t need it as he could bowl bouncers or yorkers at will and destroy batsmen whenever he needed to. One of the great bowlers and possibly the best that West Indies have ever produced, largely because he didn’t have the back-up that some of the others did during their glory days.

 

So if we look back at that, Harbhajan is not as good as Murali, Warne, Hadlee, Pollock, Akram or Ambrose. While McGrath and Walsh had some help, Harbhajan did too and he probably isn’t as good as those two. But he is probably up there with Kumble and Kapil, the other two Indians ahead of him on that list. There is an argument that he is up there with Walsh and McGrath, too. Number of wickets doesn’t equal quality though. A lot of players had a lot less wickets than that yet were better (Sydney Barnes, anyone? Or even Fred Spofforth, for that matter). Sydney Barnes has the greatest-ever Test bowling ranking, yet barely managed 100 wickets and Spofforth was the whole reason that the Ashes were made, yet similarly didn’t take too many overall. Why? Because they didn’t play too many matches. Two legendary bowlers who were certainly in all-time XIs before World War II, are not in this list. Two bowlers who, according to reports, were probably better than any of the names in this list, weren’t in there.

 

So should we be so ashamed that Harbhajan is in the list?

 

Harbhajan had a fantastic 2001 series versus Australia. That was Australia at their strongest and India quite frankly not looking very good. Yes, India had a lot of good batsmen with Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and captain Sourav Ganguly himself, but they didn’t have any good bowlers, and they were also lacking decent opening batsmen and a decent wicket-keeper. In spite of the home ground advantage, Australia were widely expected to win the series. Indeed, Australia won the first Test easily and were well ahead in the 2nd Test, so far ahead that they asked India to follow-on. VVS Laxman‘s impossible 281 combined with Dravid’s century meant that India not only made Australia bat again but went on to win the Test. Australia briefly went for the improbable six-runs-per-over victory but soon shut up shop and went for the draw, only to have Harbhajan Singh win it. The third Test was ultimately a lot closer, but Harbhajan Singh kept India in the hunt, and ultimately was there at the end when India won by two wickets and won the series 2-1. Bear in mind that at the time Australia were on a world record 16 game winning streak! He took 32 wickets in 3 Tests, and this after taking just four in the 1st – so 28 wickets in 2 Tests! Quite an incredible feat against the best batting line-up in the world at the time.

 

After that, Harbhajan has varied between being a plodder and having moments of decency, but without ever having another magical series. That is it. Just one good series, or indeed just two good Tests. But oh, what magnificent Tests they were!

 

For the rest of his career, Harbhajan has had times where he has been so bad that it is like he is being carried, and he has even been dropped from the side entirely. Yet at other times he has genuinely supported the other bowlers. There have often been calls for him to be dropped to allow another younger spinner to take his place but with his batting improving too, it is hard to make a case to drop him.

 

Perhaps he is not one of the best of all time. Perhaps not even top 30. But he does a job, and a lot of the others with lots of wickets (or lots of runs for that matter too) weren’t all-time greats either. I don’t think too many people would rate Walsh ahead of Ambrose, yet he is ahead of him on that list.

 

Muralitharan, when asked if anyone would ever beat his record of 800 Test wickets, said that he thought that Harbhajan just might do it. And perhaps he will. But having taken 13 years to get to 400, and now aged 31, that’d mean him playing until he was 44. Are India prepared to let him play that long just to get the record? Or can he improve enough that he can get the wickets more quickly? Only time will tell.

 

I for one do not think that it is wrong for him to be in the 400 club.

 

(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket – from Tests, ODIs, T20 – at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)