Bringing cheer to the Indian camp

S. DINAKAR

TO understand Harbhajan Singh's cricket and bowling, you have got to learn about his personality. This man is so full of life, so full of joy, so full of passion. There is never a dull moment when 'Bhajju' is around and he indeed is the livewire in the Indian team, keeping the spirits up, regaling his team-mates with wisecracks off the field, inspiring them on it.

AP

Harbhajan Singh is a vibrant young man, who has learnt to laugh his way through troubled times. Yet, beneath the jovial exterior lies a combative cricketer, who relishes the sniff of a battle.

The Punjab cricketer's match-winning ways surfaced yet again during the second innings of the recent Mumbai Test, when the off-spinner, getting the ball to spin and bounce wickedly, cut a swathe through the Caribbean line-up on the fourth day.

More than the wickets that he picked, it was the manner in which Harbhajan operated that was heart-warming. He was bowling to a lovely rhythm, gave the ball air, extracted bounce and turn from the surface, and his line was exemplary.

And there was enough evidence at the Wankhede Stadium that he was maturing as an offie who can think batsmen out. Carl Hooper, an accomplished player of spin, was done in by the loop as he pushed forward to a well flighted delivery from Harbhajan.

Moments later, the West Indian captain was walking back, a dejected man, even as a jubilant Harbhajan, who had pocketed a return catch, celebrated with his team-mates. It marked a complete victory for the bowler.

It's wickets like these, when he wins the mental duel against the batsmen, that stay in Harbhajan Singh's memory. "It's nice when I fox a batsman. But I guess that's a part of a spinner's job," he told The Sportstar.

After Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan drifted into the sunset, India struggled to unearth a quality off-spinner, until, of course, the arrival of Harbhajan.

It would be unfair to brush aside the performances of Shivlal Yadav during the late 70s and the 80s. However, his middle and leg line meant that he could never quite take a dominant role in Test cricket.

Gopal Sharma was more of roller than a genuine spinner, while the likes of Ashok Patel were not quite cut out for big-time cricket. And Arshad Ayub, who took over from Shivlal, could be deadly on ill-prepared surfaces. Yet, his limited, rather one-dimensional off-spin was exposed on better pitches. Ditto with Rajesh Chauhan, a whole-hearted cricketer with limited skills.

In the early 90s, the absence of a threatening off-spinner was being felt, never more so than on the tour of Down Under in 1991-92, when India desperately required one, considering the traditional Aussie weakness against the offies. However, sadly, there was none in the Indian ranks. The left-arm spin of Ravi Shastri and Venkatapathy Raju and Narendra Hirwani's leg-spin was all that India possessed on that campaign.

It is in this context that Harbhajan's rise assumes significance. And the Sardar realises this. "This is a critical phase of my career. From here on, I can develop into a very good bowler who will be able to serve India for long. I know that I cannot relax on my successes. I will have to work even harder."

Few bowlers strive more at the nets, and you can invariably spot him sending down delivery after delivery, sharpening his skills, ironing out the little chinks.

He does use the crease well, putting seeds of doubts in the minds of the batsmen about the length, and then snares them with subtle changes in flight and pace, bounce and spin.

Mercifully, the basic off-spin remains his stock delivery, though he has the ability to drift the ball away from the right-hander. He understands that the 'Doosra' would have to be a surprise weapon. There have been offies who have been carried away by the 'other one' so much so that they forgot their basic job; spinning the ball into the right-hander.

Harbhajan has developed plenty of variations and he can surprise the batsmen with a top-spinner, and even the occasional yorker. He has learnt the art of using the seam, and it is not beyond this crafty customer to send down a gentle outswinger!

His line has always been consistent, the Sardar shrewdly adjusts his length according to the batsmen. For instance, he says operating on a full length to someone like the free-stroking England opener, Marcus Trescothick, was a risky proposition, since he can sweep with ease. "You have to flight in such a way that he is drawn forward, and forced to drive in the long-on and long-off area. Once a batsman starts doing that, I know I have a chance to get him."

Along his eventful cricketing journey, he has displayed the resolve and the resilience to bounce back from career-threatening setbacks, his strength of mind being the key. His action was questioned, his stint at the National Cricket Academy was a turbulent one, there were serious doubts about him returning, yet he emerged from the shadows, a much improved bowler.

His feats in that dramatic, gut-wrenching Test series against Australia last year, are too well known to be dwelt with at length here. However, the genesis of that sensational performance was at the conditioning camp in Chennai, that preceded the tour. It was here that he settled down on the right line; given his natural turn, bounce, and that distinct fizz off the pitch, the other aspects of his bowling fell in place.

However, given the burden of expectations following the 'highs' of that series, Harbhajan found wickets harder to come by outside the sub-continent, and was a victim of unreasonable criticism. "It is important to find the rhythm and bowl well. There are days when wickets will not come, but a bowler should not lose heart."

His heart is in the right place though, and it was a proud moment for Harbhajan when he nailed his 100th Test batsman, during his five-wicket haul in the decider at Jamaica, earlier this year. Gaining in confidence, he operated quite superbly in England, both in the ODIs and the Tests, and was on the mark in the ICC Champions Trophy as well. Though away from home, he was not away from success. Skipper Sourav Ganguly, one of Harbhajan's biggest supporters, considers the Sardar an attacking spinner, and the two do jell together.

In the last 12 months, he has combined with senior leg-spinner Anil Kumble to provide India victory in Mohali (against England), Leeds (England), and now Mumbai. Yet, when the situation, especially away from home, demanded that three seamers should play, either Harbhajan or Kumble has sat out.

With Kumble being someone who has guided him at a critical juncture of his career, it is painful for Harbhajan to play ahead of his spin partner. Yet he is realistic enough to understand that the team balance warranted the omission of one of them. "Kumble has got over 300 Test wickets, more than any other Indian spinner, and then I realise he is sitting outside because of me. It is not an easy thought. But I must say that even on those occasions when he is not playing, he still walks up to me at the end of the day, and comes up with suggestions concerning my bowling. It's so nice of him." The chemistry between the two is just right, and it has been a bonding that has endured.

Harbhajan Singh has got his priorities and values just right, and that's as important as his cricket. A blithe spirit like him is a rarity in contemporary cricket. He does bring cheer to the Indian camp.