For all his success and failure in international cricket Harbhajan Singh will not forget his helplessness as bowler and captain in the Ranji Trophy semifinal at Mohali two years ago. He, an acknowledged master off spinner of world cricket, ran into a rookie batsman Karun Nair and what followed over the next two days was his worst nightmare come true.
Harbhajan, appearing on his home pitch bowled his heart out but nevertheless failed to beat the broad blade of a young batsman who he probably had never seen or heard of until then. Karun played him like a seasoned campaigner during the unbeaten 151 made over 460 minutes to guide Karnataka to victory and consequently the final.
If Harbhajan, the Punjab skipper was left smarting and short of words after that unexpected debacle at the hands of a rookie, the fate that awaited him at the national level at the hands of yet another junior was a bit too much for him to stomach.
Ravichandran Ashwin made his India Test debut in November 2011; a clear 13 years after Harbhajan broke into the national team in March 1998. The latter, till Ashwin came along and stole his thunder, was the proud holder of the record for the fastest Indian to bag 200 Test wickets. He had done it in 46 Tests, a commendable achievement by itself.
However, Ashwin went and did the unthinkable – he smashed the record in a mere 37 Tests and then for good measure went on to get his 20th five-wicket haul in his 39th Test, 20 Tests fewer than erstwhile record holder – who else but Harbhajan Singh.
Harbhajan, who had lost his place in the Indian team in all formats of the game to Ashwin, vented his anger in a Kolkatta newspaper, accusing pitch curators of bestowing undue favours on Ashwin.
“What we used to get, can be termed as 'little favour' and what happens now is 'lot of favour'. There's hell and heaven of a difference between the two. There should be a balance between bat and ball. Neither the batsman nor the bowler should get extra advantage. Skill should be the deciding factor and not the conditions. Once the conditions start playing a bigger role, skill falls behind,” Harbhajan was quoted as saying.
Interestingly, before the start of the Test series against the Kiwis, Harbhajan was reported to have said that the Indian team had a chance to usher in a new era where Indian cricket teams would not require 'rank turners' to win matches as the long-used tactic was beginning to boomerang on the side, referring to the fact that Indian batsmen had succumbed to foreign spin bowlers on home pitches in the recent past.
But his reaction to Ashwin’s record-breaking spree said something else altogether and a peeved Ashwin quickly pointed out that neither skipper Virat Kohli nor coach Anil Kumble either rolls or waters the pitch.
“It's unfortunate that people don't understand this. We should be allowed to enjoy our brand of cricket. Nobody is bothered when England wins a Test in two days. So what's the problem if the same happens in India?" Ashwin asked.
Skipper Virat Kohli, when apprised of the statement of Harbhajan, took pains to explain the situation. “See even if it is a turning pitch you have to bowl well. Spin doesn't happen only off the pitch. Spin is about how many revs you impart off the shoulder first. And then the ball will do something off the pitch. I quite clearly remember after we lost to New Zealand in the World T20, suddenly everybody claimed that their spinners were quality bowlers and we had been found out. I don't see anyone talking about that now."
Kohli went on to add that the same Kiwi spinners had played in the recent India Tests.
“Why were they not been able to pick wickets? It is as simple as that.”
Indeed it was only Ashwin among the Indian and New Zealand spinners who had a rich harvest of wickets although all bowlers operated on the same pitch.
Besides, Harbhajan too seemed to have forgotten the home series against the Australians in 2001 where, on pitches tailor made for him, he bagged 32 wickets in three Tests to proudly feature in the Indian wins.
True a comparative strike rate of Ashwin’s overseas and home performance does not present a rosy picture of his bowling on foreign soil (62.1 overseas vs 43.9 at home.) But even here these figures are far superior to Harbhajan’s overseas to home Tests ratio (76.2 to 68.5). In fact Ashwin’s strike rate and bowling average are the best among Indian spinners of all time, and it is time a reputed Test cricketer like Harbhajan Singh learns not to belittle it.
During his time Harbhajan did yeoman service for India. Now that the mantle has passed on to Ashwin he simply must accept the fact that there is a “new kid in town” and his ways are far more productive.
Finally, while on Harbhajan’s 'doctored pitches', charge one can’t help but recall the unforgettable words of Geoff Boycott during an England vs Pakistan Test wherein the English commentators were endlessly haranguing the Pakistanis about ball tampering. Boycott brought the discussion to a close with a telling comment: “Guys, even if Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were to bowl with an orange they’d bundle out this England team!” Ashwin is reaching that sort of cult status and Harbhajan had better learn to appreciate it rather than put his own credibility on the line.