Spinners get better with age, as wine does. Some of the finest spinners the game has ever seen reinvented their art as the years went by and improved their wicket taking prowess, by devising new means to dismiss the batsman.
So, how has Harbhajan Singh fared after a dozen seasons of Test cricket under his belt?
Pitch forked into the spotlight, with a dream series against the world champions Australia, Harbhajan Singh bagged an astonishing thirty-two wickets to spoil the dream of Steve Waugh for what he called his final frontier.
That included a hat-trick at the Eden Gardens which helped India square the three match series and eventually seized the coveted Border Gavaskar Trophy with a win at Chennai by two wickets in 2001.
Fresh in the news for breaking numerous records with his bat as a number eight batsman by scoring back to back hundreds in the recently concluded Test series against New Zealand.
One wonders if Harbhajan remains at the top of his trade and that is to take wickets. A veteran of 90 Tests and 350 scalps against his name, has Harbhajan Singh tapered off?
The legendary Sri Lankan Muttiah Muralitharan tips the Indian off-spinner to emulate his record in Tests.
Now leading the spin attack for India following Anil Kumble’s exit from the scene, statistics suggests that he is on a decline and the strike power is waning coupled with the deserting natural bounce.
The flatter trajectory, increased speed of the ball, excessive use of doosra means that his wicket-taking ability are severely restricted . Flight, bounce, variation of pace, use of the crease to vary the length and attacking field placings were all factors which made Harbhajan menacing and gave him the name “The Turbanator".
Glenn McGrath, in his autobiography, says every day you cannot run through the opposition as fatigue and toll of continuous cricket begins to show effect on the form. However, it is at this juncture you raise the game, when you become predictable. He maintains that the belief to back your ability to take wickets in the most difficult situations is the key to consistent performance.
Harbhajan will know his primary role is to take wickets and whatever runs his bat yields is a bonus and may sometimes be a demand of the situation.
India certainly doesn’t want a Harbhajan Singh to score hundreds on flatbeds and starve for wickets as this would deviate from his main role for which he is selected to play for his country.
While statistics do not always tell the real story, they can invariably show warning signs or symptoms. With the advent of twenty cricket, batsman friendly wickets, compressed boundaries, containment is the order of the day.
Clichéd it may sound, the best way to contain a batsman is get him out. There is little doubt that it will be increasingly tough for slower bowlers to come close to Muralitharan’s feat.
Muralitharan, the man who backs Harbhajan Singh, after a dozen of years at the Test level had 485 wickets from 82 Tests. In the subsequent seven years before retiring, he took a staggering 315 wickets, including his 800th wicket with the last ball of his Test career.
Harbhajan should look at these numbers for encouragement and rekindle his motivation. At 30, he has plenty of years of cricket left in him, with invaluable experience may be this is the time that will define how Harbhajan Singh can carry the tag of a “great spinner “ and rediscover his appetite for wickets.
© Cricket World 2010