On Sunday evening, just as the two teams were warming up ahead of their clash at the R. Premadasa Stadium, Harbhajan Singh was among the last Indian players to walk out. He knew he was in the first eleven - skipper MS Dhoni had said so in the pre-match conference.
Bhajji didn't bother with the fielding drills coach Duncan Fletcher was monitoring. He didn't pay any attention to Dhoni playing football with the groundsmen. He was on his way to the pitch, to have a look at the task that lay ahead of him. But he stopped short, for there was Graeme Swann tuning up for the match, just ahead of the strip. The two off-spinners shook hands and chatted for a minute, not more. Perhaps they promised each other a contest.
When he first burst onto the scene and was promoted ahead of Anil Kumble as India's star spinner by Sourav Ganguly, the legendary leg-spinner could still feel comfortable. It wasn't another leggie who was taking up his place, and whenever India needed two spinners in their attack, there was place for both of them. It is part of history now, how Bhajji and Kumble often hunted together.
The thing about Harbhajan Singh's down-curve is that he has had a lot of competition to deal with. Swann and Saeed Ajmal have left him far behind in the international standings, but it is the intra-team battle that has probably hurt the most. The rise of Ravichandran Ashwin has pushed him down, not onto the second spinner's slot because Pragyan Ojha has relegated him to third.
Even in the lead-up to this match, against New Zealand and Afghanistan, he had to be satisfied with carrying drinks. The best news for Bhajji on this day then was that only Piyush Chawla was his contender. For Swann was up against the best line-up against any spin attack, even when most of its batsmen are woefully out of form.
India's total of 170 was 20 runs short of what they should have achieved. Prime reason for this was the short stuff English medium-pacers bowled, and it should have been punished more. Nearly 65 percent of their bowling was not of optimum length and the rest 35 percent included Swann's four overs. He was bang on the money.
The pitch didn't allow for much turn. The ball wasn’t gripping the surface for it wasn't overtly dry after a whole night of rain in Colombo. As it is, the common refrain here is that Lankan pitches have changed their nature. While that theory can only be confirmed after the tournament is done with, even so, England’s bowling was a tad disappointing, particularly in the light that they brought in Tim Bresnan for Samit Patel.
The latter was never going to trouble the Indian batsmen but if the faster bowlers also then decide to bang it in every time they are hit for a boundary, it just shows a lack of Plan B.
That is where Swann was a revelation. On the night, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma all got runs. And their manner of scoring was authoritative, almost contemptuous in the case of Kohli and Sharma. But against Swann, their runs-versus-balls graph dipped. Six off nine balls, five off nine and five off six were their respective scores.
Maybe this also explains why Kohli decided to hit out, just to tide over his frustrations. But the delivery that he got was slower than Swann's average pace, turned a little more than the rest he bowled in that over, and was also just a tad shorter of hitting-out length. No wonder Kohli holed out.
The problem for England though was that Bhajji could go one up. If you open up hawk-eye and look at the bounce he got - more than Swann actually - it will dawn that for once he was giving ample loop to the ball. Conceivably it was the sight of English batsmen and their not too bright records against spin that induced this side out of the Turbanator after so long. Eoin Morgan had no answer to one that kept held its line while he backed off to cut for the turn.
Jos Buttler played an imaginary shot, a pre-meditative one at that, even before realising where Bhajji would pitch the ball. It wasn't an extraordinary delivery, just turned enough to beat his bat and take the stumps. Bresnan decided to sweep, a classic example of not having a clue against spin.
The greatest shock though was Swann walking past Bhajji's doosra. You would expect an off-spinner to read another, but his folly can be forgiven seeing the manner in which England's main batsmen imploded. This, when India played only their second and third choice spinners.
The danger for Stuart Broad's aspirations to successfully defend the World T20 title now hinges on how well his batsmen cope whenever Swann bowls well. For they will know that there is something in the track for slow bowlers, and it is high time Andy Flower told his wards that they have a weakness against spin. Meanwhile, Bhajji prepares for life as Ashwin's hunting partner, come winter.
© Cricket World 2012
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