Harbhajan Singh: Act fast or lose finger-spinners

If you don’t act fast the game would lose finger-spinners and that would be a tragedy. Finger-spinners have been an integral part of slow bowling and we should encourage them.

Harbhajan Singh, the combative off-spinner, who has taken more than 400 Test wickets, is now a commentator. He has not retired yet and feels that he has got a raw deal from the powers that be, who dropped him from the Indian team.   -  K. R. Deepak

Harbhajan Singh, who bagged 417 wickets in 103 Tests, is regarded as one of the finest off-spinners the game has seen. He was the typical slow bowler who believed in challenging the batsmen, even on unresponsive pitches. It was a skill he had come to hone with the unstinted support of the captain (Sourav Ganguly) and the team management. He formed a lethal combination with Anil Kumble, who finished with a haul of 619 Test wickets and 317 ODI scalps. Harbhajan’s 269 ODI wickets, like Kumble’s tally, came against tough opponents with both often coming into action early in the game.

Despite his splendid contribution, Harbhajan feels he was not backed by the selectors and captain (M. S. Dhoni) when he needed their support. The Punjab off-spinner had not become a liability, but he was not treated with the respect he deserved. The national selectors kept him in the dark and chose to ignore his rightful claims. It was said the selectors had been instructed not to back Harbhajan and the captain too preferred to toe their line. Harbhajan played his last Test and ODI for India in 2015 and made his final T20 appearance in 2016. He has not announced his retirement from the game yet and keeps himself busy as a commentator.

In this interview with Sportstar, the 39-year-old Harbhajan speaks on the decline of spin bowling not just in India but the world over. He also sympathises with finger-spinners of his kind, Jalaj Saxena and Akshay Wakhare, for being ignored despite performing consistently well. Harbhajan also pleads for the need to protect finger-spinners in times when the art of flighting the ball is becoming nearly extinct. “If you don’t act fast the game would lose finger-spinners,” he cautions.

How do you look at the state of spin bowling in India?

I have played a lot of domestic cricket in the last five to six years and I can’t remember one striking spinner, who stood out for his skills or potential. There were a few decent bowlers, but not who I could say were bowlers for the future. As we can see, the tradition of finger-spin is disappearing because people believe that this art is not suited to today’s cricket. You can see this trend in the lower rung of bowlers who are convinced that there is no place for finger-spinners. It is as if they are not a part of the game anymore and in any case they can’t change their style all of a sudden.

What are the reasons behind this trend?

Even the finger-spinners are not confident of themselves. They are resigned to being a part of the game more as batting all-rounders. It helps them if they can bat a bit and continue to be finger-spinners. Most of them come across as batsmen who can bowl a bit. I have not seen one spinner who I feel would get me out on a good pitch. There is no doubt that there is a famine of spinners in India.

Harbhajan forged an excellent spin partnership with leggie Anil Kumble. The duo understood each other really well.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

What could be the reason for this famine?

The prime reason is the T20 brand of cricket. I don’t know why they have this preconceived fear that they would have to bowl quicker and also defensively in a T20 match. As if bowling quicker is the only option for a spinner to do well in T20 cricket.

How do you look at the future of spin bowling?

To tell you honestly I feel it is a dying art. Most of them look to bowl a straight line and that to me is the saddest fallout for the finger-spinners in modern cricket. The one who can spin the ball looks to bowl straight. The one who essentially bowls straight looks to spin the ball once in a while as a surprise element. That is what I learnt as a young bowler.

Today, the fast bowlers want to slow down in order to make an impact. And the slow bowlers look to bowl quicker! They are all confused. They don’t understand the art of spin bowling or the art of fast bowling. They have forgotten how to make use of their art by adjusting to the format they are bowling in.

Can you give an example?

Take a bowler who likes to flight the ball. In a T20 match he doesn’t want to flight the ball. Why? You can do it by changing the line and length. He can push in a quicker one once in six balls, but he can’t flight just one in six. Why is he changing his art? This T20 actually instills the fear of being hit, if they flight the ball, among young bowlers. Then it becomes a part of their bowling and they begin to bowl just tight. They look threatening only when they bowl on a poor pitch, the under-prepared types. This combination of their defensive mindset and the format works in favour of the batsmen.

What are the advantages of being a finger-spinner or a wrist-spinner?

A wrist-spinner bowls three types of balls — leg spin, googly and the flipper. They are enough to create pressure on a batsman, create a doubt in his mind to the extent that he plays from the crease. You win a major battle once you restrict a batsman. At least you make him uncomfortable because he is not happy stepping out to play a shot.

This is not the case with a finger-spinner who can become predictable with his line unless he has a doosra or a carrom ball. He is not able to create a doubt in the mind of the batsmen and ends up getting clobbered. The team management prefers a bowler who brings in variations and a finger-spinner can do that by mixing his spin with ones that go straight. He can also vary the pace. Basically, a lot of skills are involved in finger-spin.

High point: Harbhajan Singh traps Australia’s Glenn McGrath leg before to end the eventful Eden Gardens Test of 2001 and celebrates with skipper Sourav Ganguly. Harbhajan, who had also taken a hat-trick in the first innings of this Test, is all praise for Ganguly’s leadership.   -  V. V. KRISHNAN

 

How did your excellent combination with Anil Kumble work?

From playing constantly and understanding the strength of the partner. By creating constant pressure, having fielders close to the batsman, and also having a fielder in the deep for a mishit. We played so much together that we could understand each other. If I am being attacked (six runs an over), then Anil bhai would bowl tight. If a wicket had fallen we would attack from both ends, especially targeting the new batsman. We kept ego aside too and supported each other by accepting what worked in the interest of the team.

How do you feel bowling with different brands of balls?

There were times when I encountered trouble. I was never happy bowling with the Kookaburra ball. I could not feel the seam. That was tough. What I did was to buy Kookaburra balls and practice with them to get used to the diminished seam. I had a new ball, a semi new ball and an old ball. I would never practice with the SG balls.

Would you agree that there is an alarming fall in the standard of bowling spin and also playing spin?

Absolutely. Where are the spinners in world cricket? Show me one other than Nathan Lyon. Not one spinner! Pakistan used to have good spinners. They have one now in (leg-spinner) Yasir Shah. As for our batsmen, they hardly play domestic cricket to face whatever spinners are available in India. You have to play domestic cricket to learn to play spin. You should then get into the habit of bowling good spin or playing it. I have seen batsmen creating huge craters in front in the nets and practising against spinners. Ask the bowler to pitch there and just practice playing spin.

What would you tell a young spinner?

Don’t be afraid of getting hit. You can’t look to get wickets without taking some risk. It won’t help if you just bowl with the aim of not getting hit. You have to push the batsmen to play defensively. To do that you would have to be accurate and aggressive. That is the art. Then, because of being tied down, they will try to go after you and give you a chance. The more you bowl the better you would get. You don’t become a spinner just because you bowl from four steps or a fast bowler because you bowl from 15 steps. Can you be a spinner without spinning the ball, getting the revolutions?

Nathan Lyon of Australia is a wily off-spinner, who lures batsmen to play shots and then traps them.   -  Getty Images

 

Can you control the revolutions?

Not really. You can’t say I would get more spin from this ball and less spin from the next. No. You look to spin the ball, but can’t necessarily control the degree of turn. I could never. Even (Muttiah) Muralitharan won’t be able to do that. You spin or bowl straight. The degree of turn comes only after the ball pitches. You can look to bowl straight, look to bowl a certain line but you can’t say this ball will spin 15 degrees and the next 30 and the next 45. You bowl with the intention to spin, but the degree of turn can’t be controlled. This element confuses the batsmen most and for you to succeed you need to bowl accurately. Lyon does that. He lures you to play shots and keeps the batsman under pressure with his bounce. The catch that goes to backward short leg happens due to bounce and not the turn. You can feel it when you are bowling well. You can make the ball talk. And when you bowl to the field it becomes a fascinating battle with the batsman.

Does the state of the ball also matter for a spinner?

I don’t mind the state of the ball. It can be new, semi-new, 50 overs old. But no one likes a ball which is too old. That ball has to go. And you have to feel the ball also.

Do you feel you could have achieved more when you look back?

When I look back I feel grateful to God. From the background I came, I am happy I have come this far. Not that I was perfect. I made mistakes as a bowler and made mistakes with my field placements. You don’t realise this when you are playing, but you discover it when sitting out. I could have been a better bowler. I could have developed my skills. I could have been a better batsman. I could have done so many things better. Cricket teaches you so much.

What hurts you the most?

To tell you honestly it hurt when I was suddenly not considered despite good performances (after 2012). I played one Test in 2012 and two each in 2013 and 2015. Five Tests in three years (out of 34 Tests that India played). It hurt. I was kept out despite my 400-wicket haul. I don’t know why. The selectors never told me the reason. Nor did the team management. I had played only on merit. But now I have fallen behind international bowlers who were more than 100 wickets less than me when I was ignored. I stayed at 417 wickets and many went past me. I was not such a bad bowler. I would have delivered in those four years. I had 400 wickets to my credit, but it seemed a big zero. I could have added another 100. It will hurt me always. I wish I could go back into time and erase those painful memories. How I wish there were better people in the system! People who cared for Indian cricket than themselves! I don’t have to name them.

How much does a captain’s support count?

A lot. He can make or mar a career. An individual has to win the faith of the captain. I am sure if you do something for the captain he would back you. You win games for him he would be sure that he can rely on you. It is a great relationship. I was fortunate to have a partner like Anil bhai and a captain like Dada (Sourav Ganguly). He was a bowler’s captain and I have gained and learnt a lot from Dada. He knew how to get the best out of the bowlers, especially the spinners.

What is the future of spin bowling?

There is always hope. India has a great tradition. Look at Yuzvendra (Chahal) and Kuldeep (Yadav). They have won so many matches for India. You have Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma making so many runs. You need batsmen to make runs, but also the bowlers to take wickets.

The two bowlers you have picked are wrist-spinners. Not your variety?

They are not playing spinners of my variety. There is an off-spinner named Jalaj Saxena. They just refuse to consider him. He has been bowling superbly for so many seasons, taking wickets in big number, but they just don’t pick him.

There is a spinner named Akshay Wakhare. A very consistent bowler but no one looks at him. And then you say spinners are getting lost in Indian cricket. Akshay plays for Vidarbha which has won the Ranji Trophy twice. He must have done something good for Vidarbha to have won the Ranji Trophy twice.

They pick guys who don’t even spin the ball. I just don’t get it. Why don’t you encourage a bowler who bowls genuine spin, who can lure the batsman out and have him stumped.

Why can’t you play a spinner like Wakhare who will ensure you don’t chase a big target. You have to develop these bowlers by giving them confidence. I want to know what wrong has Saxena done. Has he, or Wakhare, or Shahbaz Nadeem, committed a crime by taking wickets?

If you don’t act fast the game would lose finger-spinners and that would be a tragedy. Finger-spinners have been an integral part of slow bowling and we should encourage young bowlers to be resilient. That can come only if you give them the assurance of a long run even if they get hit sometimes in their effort to take wickets.

Finally, would you say that a spinner has to be groomed and supported?

You will need spinners when playing in India. The ball does turn on Indian pitches and there is also the fact that batsmen from other countries don’t play spin well. It is a blessing to have a good spinner when playing in India. Few can play spin well in world cricket and if you can bowl spin well you can rule world cricket. This can be the greatest motivation — to be the best spinner in the world.