When Harbhajan Singh claimed the wicket of Imrul Kayes, stumped by Wriddhiman Saha, in the Test against Bangladesh he went past Wasim Akram’s tally of 414 Test wickets and into ninth position on the all-time wicket-takers list. That Harbhajan managed to achieve this feat in two fewer Tests than Akram is more impressive still.
These numbers place Harbhajan in a rare group but just how good has Bhajji been over the course of his career?
One way to evaluate him would be to compare him to India's other great spinner from the same era – Anil Kumble. Out of the 102 Tests that Harbhajan has played for India, 54 of them came in tandem with Anil Kumble. The table below compares their stats in all the important bowling parameters in the Tests they played together:
These numbers show that Kumble was the better bowler – having taken 61 more wickets at a significantly better strike-rate and a better average. However, there have been two different Harbhajan’s over the course of his career.
From his debut in March 1998 until December 2005, Harbhajan played 50 Tests and took 219 wickets at an excellent average of 27.87. After that he regressed. From January 2006 until the England tour of 2011, Harbhajan took 187 wickets at a rather pedestrian average of 37.32.
The first Harbhahan was a world-beater. The second did just enough to hold on to his place in the side before losing it when a viable alternative – R Ashwin – came along.
Overall, Harbhajan's career bowling strike-rate of 68.3 is still better than fellow offpsinners Ashley Mallett and India great Erapalli Prasanna. Like most bowlers he was much more effective at home, where he averaged 28.71 and had a strike-rate of 64 compared to an average of 38.56 and a strike rate of 75.7 away from home.
The finest moment in Harbhajan’s career came in the three-Test series against Australia at home in 2001, where he took 32 wickets, with four five-wicket hauls and two ten-wicket hauls. The series is remembered primarily for VVS Laxman’s 281 and his series-altering partnership with Rahul Dravid at the Eden Gardens, but without Harbhajan’s heroics, India would not have won the second and third Tests.
Those 32 wickets are a record for a spinner in a three Test series. The three premier spinners of his era - Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble – had bests of 30, 27 and 24 wickets respectively in a three Test series. It is also the fourth highest number of wickets taken by any bowler in a three Test series.
If there is one major blip in Harbhajan’s Test record, it is in Australia where he has taken just nine wickets in four matches at an astronomical average of 73.22.
But off-spinners generally struggle in Australia as the conditions favour pace bowlers and leg-spinners who give the ball a rip. Fellow off-spin bowlers such as Muralitharan, Ashwin and Graeme Swann average 75.41, 54.71 and 52.59 respectively.
The other two countries where Harbhajan’s record is below par are Sri Lanka and England. In Sri Lanka, he took just 25 wickets in nine Tests at an average of 46.92 and a strike rate of 90.6. In England, he took 14 wickets in five Tests at an average of 49.78 and a strike rate of 88.
While Harbhajan bowled impressively in the recently concluded Test against Bangladesh, one must not get carried away as he was clearly second best to Ashwin, who extracted more turn and bite from the pitch. Since it is extremely unlikely that India persist with a two off-spinner strategy, and Harbhajan will turn 35 in three weeks time, he will be hard pressed to add to these numbers.
Still, Harbhajan deserves to go out on a high and irrespective of his performances in the upcoming Tests, will go down as one of India’s all-time great bowlers in Test history.
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Updated Date: Jun 17, 2015 12:35:59 IST