Harbhajan Singh is in poor form this World Cup © Getty Images
Harbhajan Singh is in poor form this World Cup © Getty Images

 

By Jamie Alter 

 

Four matches into the World Cup, India’s highest wicket-taker is, unsurprisingly, Zaheer Khan with 11 at an average of 14.00 per victim. The next best are Munaf Patel and, perhaps surprisingly, Yuvraj Singh with seven apiece. Next, surprisingly for many, is Piyush Chawla with four. And then, bringing up the rear is Harbhajan Singh with two wickets from four matches at an average of 79.50. Surprising? Not really, considering the way Harbhajan has bowled in ODIs of late.

 

Harbhajan has rarely divided opinion in Test cricket. Few doubt his talent, and none will offer a case for any better off-spinner in the country. He’s had his share of critics, sure, but countless times Harbhajan has bounced back with a bagful of wickets as if to say, ‘Will you please shut up?’ Well, he’s actually said that once too. Look into a few of those hauls and you will notice they’ve come in scenarios where the hard work has been done by others. But that’s a discussion for another day.

 

Focusing purely on one-day cricket, Harbhajan is stuck in a bit of a rut. Academically, he’s managed nine wickets from 12 games over the past 12 months. Those nine wickets have come at an average of 52.55 and it has taken Harbhajan 73.3 balls to strike. Those are poor numbers for anyone, but damning when they belong to your lead spinner. In the World Cup, Harbhajan has gone wicketless in his last two outings – against the Associates.

 

The reasons for Harbhajan’s inefficiency aren’t new. He’s slipped back into a comfort zone where he doesn’t toss the ball up enough and instead relies on the staple diet of fast, flat off-breaks into the batsmen’s stumps. It works occasionally, but when you drift away – no pun intended – from the basic facets of good spin bowling, you are eventually going to become ineffective and currently that is just what Harbhajan is.

 

As India’s leading spin bowler, it’s unfortunate that Harbhajan doesn’t win India more matches and that he doesn’t boast a wide repertoire. In days of yore, bowlers like EAS Prasanna and Bishan Singh Bedi, when hit for a boundary, would smile and toss it up again. They enjoyed the duel, thrived on it. They teased the batsmen into false shots, constantly revved themselves up for such contests. Harbhajan is content keeping it flat, wary of tossing it up and being hit. His mantra has been to bowl stump to stump in ODIs, a tactic he believes to a genuine attacking and wicket-taking option. The results are there to see.

 

His slower balls are predictable, the drift and bounce have dipped, and most glaringly Harbhajan has wavered from a good length. Too often he’s been satisfied pushing the ball through quickly on middle and leg. A couple years ago, there was criticism of Harbhajan’s reliance on the doosra and how it had affected his ability to drift and turn his stock ball, the off-spinner. Now he bowls the doosra sparingly, which is counterproductive. Harbhajan has been unable to find a balance. In these times of small boundaries and heavy bats, a spinner needs to constantly redefine and Harbhajan is struggling to do so.

 

During the one-day series in South Africa earlier this year, Harbhajan bowled well in patches on surfaces that weren’t as conducive to spin as in the subcontinent. He began the series well, taking four wickets in the first three games and going for just 3.82 an over, but fell apart – as did India – in the last two and finished with those four wickets from five matches. His strike-rate? 70.5. And an average of 51.25 to boot.

 

Harsha Bhogle, as astute an observer of the game as they come, noted last year that Harbhajan needed to define himself as India’s No 1 bowler and revel in that role. How Harbhajan carries himself for the rest of the World Cup – and India’s competition now gets under way against South Africa and West Indies – could be a defining chapter of their journey.

 

The other bowler who threatens to leave an impact of the wrong sorts on India’s campaign is Chawla. India have relied on two spinners in the World Cup, with Chawla getting the nod ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin, leading to much debate and criticism. In his two-and-a-half-year absence from ODI cricket, hasn’t evolved much as a bowler. He still relies on the googly and it has become predictable. Chawla must now think about when to rely on the googly and when to slip in the leg-break. In the crucial 49th over of England’s chase, the batsmen were looking to slog over midwicket and Chawla criminally sent down googlies.

 

He bowled Tim Bresnan, but not before conceding two sixes. Holding Chawla back until the death hasn’t worked, as Netherlands’ Peter Borren reminded India on Wednesday.

 

Asked yet again why he was persisting with Chawla, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s answer was that “Piyush needs a bit of time in the middle. He needs confidence. Ashwin is mentally stronger.” How much time does he need, and why are India experimenting in a World Cup? So far the damage caused by Chawla hasn’t cost India a match – though he certainly pushed in that final over against England – but with no more minnows to face in the tournament, India will really need the young leggie to raise his game.

 

(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. His first book, The History of World Cup Cricket, is out now)