Killing 'em

From the time the two figured in a tournament for Chemplast at Bangalore in 1997, Harbhajan and Kumble have grown together as `soft killers' of the best batting line-ups.

PUNJAB's Ranji Trophy camp was in progress in Jalandhar. Test opener and team captain Vikram Rathore took his young spinner aside and whispered, "Sachin wants to see you. Pack your bag." The young lad lost no time in taking the first bus to Mohali.

Harbhajan Singh, the Man of the Match, and Anil Kumble, who equalled Kapil Dev's record of 434 Test wickets, after India's victory against South Africa at the Eden Gardens. — Pic. AFP-

"By the time I reached the stadium at Mohali the `nets' session was in the last stages. Only the tailenders were left to bat. I bowled to them and was thrilled when Sachin came and watched me in action," recalled the `lad' in question, Harbhajan Singh.

Even as Tendulkar observed young Harbhajan's skills, a gentleman standing at a fair distance from him had his eyes focussed on the young off-spinner. And, whatever he saw made his eyes fill with admiration! "I was amazed at the bounce that he managed and his fantastic control," remembered the `gentleman' in question, Anil Kumble.

That, then, is the story of the first meeting between India's two proven match-winners — one an unorthodox leg-spinner and the other a traditional off-spinner. Both are wily exponents of spin and on their best days are a nightmare for the batsmen and a delight for their captain. And, both remember vividly of that eventful day in Mohali on the eve of India's Test against Sri Lanka in late 1997 when they first came face to face.

Harbhajan made his debut for India against Mark Taylor's Australia at Bangalore the very next season when captain Mohammed Azharuddin preferred him to Hrishikesh Kanitkar. "We were convinced the boy had something in him. He was highly motivated and willing to perform," said Kumble.

Harbhajan had left a lasting mark on the Indians, the seniors in particular, with his drifter at the Mohali `nets'. "It was my doosra," Harbhajan said proudly. "It left the batsmen guessing." No doubt it did, and still does, as Harbhajan continues to plot India's triumphs in the company of the illustrious Kumble, who stands tall with 434 Test wickets.

V.V. KRISHNAN

Kumble was the first to spread the word about the crafty off-spinner from Jalandhar. "He had that hunger in his eyes to succeed," recalled Kumble. "I picked it up from Anil bhai really." Harbhajan returned the compliment. "Anil bhai has been my role model and I never thought that one day I would get to bowl alongside him. I consider myself very fortunate."

Harbhajan, during those days, was more lethal because he used the seam most effectively. He was short and would toss the ball high. "The ball would hang," said Harbhajan, who was known as a master prankster at coaching camps and whose cheerful nature has motivated the team in times of distress. Kumble concedes that this quality is an important part of Harbhajan's cricket.

The drifter has been Harbhajan's deadly weapon. "I've worked on it from the time Sachin asked me to at Mohali," said Harbhajan, who developed the delivery by watching Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. "It shows his desire to learn," said Kumble.

Kumble and Harbhajan have perfected the art of complementing each other and winning matches consistently. One creates the pressure and the other reaps rewards.

"It helps to have one of us creating pressure," said Kumble. "We get rewarded equally. He has done his job and so have I."

It is a pity, then, that the team management does not show the same faith in them when the team plays overseas as it does when playing at home. "I have my reservations about this policy," protested Kumble. It was these two who scripted India's win against England at Headingley in 2001 on a pitch that helped the seamers! Kumble has figured in five Indian Test wins abroad and Harbhajan in four.

India's faith in slow bowlers is, of course, age old and it would be na�ve to suggest that the team has discovered spin as its strength recently. What one can bravely assert, though, is that Kumble and Harbhajan have given the attack a new dimension in recent times with their quality to run through the opposition. "They are the best in the world," confirmed Jacques Kallis, one of the best batsmen in the world at the moment.

From the time the two figured in a tournament for Chemplast at Bangalore in 1997, Harbhajan and Kumble have grown together as `soft killers' of the best batting line-ups. "I can never forget that match. Anil bhai was competing as if it was a Test match. His intensity and commitment has remained as fierce as it was then. At 34, he can embarrass a 20-year-old with his involvement in the game," gushed Harbhajan.

Kumble has figured in 28 Test victories for India, in which he has taken 199 wickets at an average of 18.37. Harbhajan has claimed 94 wickets at an average of 18.44 in the 15 Test wins in which he has been part of. At home, they have figured in 34 Test wins — 23 for Kumble and 11 for Harbhajan.

"I can never forget that match for Chemplast. Anil bhai was competing as if it was a Test match. His intensity and commitment has remained as fierce as it was then. At 34, he can embarrass a 20-year-old with his involvement in the game."-

Kumble's hunger for wickets has influenced Harbhajan. "I look for wickets now when Anil bhai is at the other end. Earlier, I could never give my best because I knew Anil bhai would sweep the batting aside. But things changed after the 2001 series against Australia after which I did not have to worry about my place in the side. Once the sense of insecurity was gone, I was at my best," observed Harbhajan.

Kumble is a cool and a thinking cricketer and an introvert. Harbhajan is impulsive by nature, aggressive and demonstrative. "I like his aggression," said Kumble. "I wish I could be as cool and as focussed as Anil bhai," said Harbhajan.

Considering their contrasting personalities, it comes as no surprise that the two spend little time together off the field. Harbhajan, who likes to live life to the full, would not mind borrowing a bit of Kumble's seriousness. Kumble has an amazing quality to stay relaxed in all conditions. "He is a man with great patience. I have rarely seen him relax his grip on the bowling. I think it comes from self-pride," said Harbhajan about his spin twin.

Both Kumble and Harbhajan attack the batsman relentlessly and it is this positive attitude that makes them one of the most innovative bowling pairs in recent times. In shaping India's win at the Eden Gardens against a determined South Africa, the two ace spinners only reconfirmed their value to Indian cricket. Kumble rejoiced as Harbhajan won the Man of the Match honours. When someone remarked that Kumble was an unorthodox spinner, Harbhajan looked back and asked in anger, "How does it matter? Look at his wickets."

Pride in each other's performances — that, then, is the secret of their success together.