Amongst off-spinners, Harbhajan Singh of India is the second highest wicket taker in Test history and the third highest Test wicket-taker from all Indians.
Since his international debut in 1998 in Australia his career has been one of some quality interspersed with great moments but he has never threatened greatness. Despite his numbers he enjoys an exulted eminence inconsistent with his form. A question over his bowling action punctuated with regular bouts of surliness has tarnished his career and it is possible that these negatives have blurred some of his achievements, at least to some of us.
Some say his difficult attitude assisted in countering the bully tactics of the Australians in their pomp. There is also an obscure argument suggesting his manner helped him compete against the Australians. He certainly produced his best performances against them and it is interesting to note that his top three victims include Ricky Ponting (10) Matthew Hayden (9) and Adam Gilchrist (8). His tally of 97 wickets against Australia easily beats his next best of 60 dismissals against South Africa.
Irrespective of history and perception his bowling has deteriorated in the last three years. He no longer bowls like an off-spinner and his reputation now travels ahead of his importance. His best most recent year in world cricket was in 2008 when he took 63 wickets at an average of 31.54. Prior to that decent year we would have to go back 2002 to see his best returns. In those intermediate years he took just 107 wickets over that five-year period and they cost 3881 runs (average of 36.27). Most of those 28 matches were played on his preferred subcontinent surfaces.
All five of his ‘man of the match’ awards and both of his ‘man of the series’ awards have been obtained in India. He has taken 258 wickets in Indian conditions (62%) compared to 148 abroad. In India his bowling average is 28.43 but outside of that his average is almost 40.
Lately he has become tiresome blaming pitches, a lack of catches off his bowling or negative lbw decisions for his demise whilst bowling flatter and faster to stop himself from being hit. He is no longer a strike bowler, he has been figured out, offers little in variation and has not evolved. His defensive and predictable approach has coincided with his lack of penetration.
Talk of him being a bit of an all-rounder is wide of the mark. For a player of his stature and longevity he has been lazy with this batting. He has scored two centuries both against New Zealand in 2010 (one of which was a not out), which boosted his average to 27.75, but he averaged 27.00 in 2003 and he averages 21.78 this year. It has never been higher than that.
Continuing to select him is not without risk. Such are the regular occurrences of Harbhajan’s misdemeanours the BCCI have deemed it necessary to warn him of a life ban should he commit one more serious transgression. His latest stomach injury gives the Indian selectors an opportune moment to phase him out.
So who should replace Harbhajan in the Test team? His lack of wickets post 2008 means the problem is not big and does not represent a gamble. Off spinner Ravichandran Ashwin (24) has only played the shorter format but looks to have the credentials including the variations to succeed. With the forthcoming tour to Australia in mind India could take leg spinner Amit Mishra (30) as first choice whilst giving Ashwin some valuable experience. The reality is the Indian selectors will want Harbhajan’s strength of character to be on that tour irrespective of form!
Meanwhile looking at Betfair’s Series Correct Score market makes for interesting reading: England 4-0 is [2.16] England 3-0 is (2.40] and England 3-1 is [6.8]. Should England step off the gas with the weather set fair then there could be value in India, a good team does not become bad overnight. Apart from being undercooked for Test cricket after playing a huge amount of limited over cricket the evidence suggests an ageing batting line-up, a declining off-spinner and substandard fielding is beginning to catch up with them and changes have been long overdue!
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