Throwing up a huge dilemma

After a row of poor shows, Harbhajan faces the heat

The ripple effects of his absence are still being felt as India’s performance on this tour of England hit rock-bottom with an embarrassing defeat at the hands of a second division county team. The faint hopes of Zaheer’s return dashed on Sunday, India now have an unenviable task ahead.

It is, however, difficult to say if there was the same melancholic feeling when another senior bowler, Harbhajan Singh, endured the same fate during the course of the second Test.

The off-spinner sustained a stomach muscle injury (grade one abdominal muscle strain, as scans revealed later) on the third day of the second Test and was subsequently ruled out of the series.

Harbhajan had gone for 218 runs for the lone wicket of Andrew Strauss in the first Test, and conceded 69 runs for Stuart Broad’s scalp in just 13.4 overs in the second. Given Graeme Swann’s equally unimpressive bowling in the series so far, one might argue, Harbhajan is not in a minority. But for someone who is the leading wicket-taker among active bowlers in the world, this was below-par bowling, to put it mildly.

The 31-year-old hasn’t had the same impact as a bowler over the last five years or so that he had in his first seven years. Each match-winning accomplishment is followed by a prolonged barren spell, and he is lucky that India haven’t produced another spinner who could put pressure on him. Indian cricket, though, has been the poorer for it.

A tally of 400-plus Test wickets is not insignificant, and the fact that he is only the 11th in the world and just the fourth spinner to do so is a tribute to his skill. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to maintain the same standards of late. There will be a few bad patches in any player’s career, but Harbhajan has experienced far too many of them. It is hard to believe that this was the same spinner who was preferred by Sourav Ganguly to Anil Kumble!

His strike rate has been just over 80 balls -- that’s more than 13 overs per wicket -- since 2006 as against a career strike rate of 65.39 and his average has hovered around 40, way above his overall 32.22.

The significant increase in both balls per wicket and average have directly to do with the dip in the number of wickets he has claimed in the latter half of his career. If the first 50 Tests saw Harbhajan claim 219 wickets, his last 48 matches have seen him grab only 187 at over 80.

The often-controversial cricketer was a feared prospect for oppositions in his first five years due to his ability to run through batting line-ups. In the first seven years, Harbhajan had 17 five-wicket hauls in an innings and four 10-wicket returns for a match.

Since 2006, however, he has only eight five-wicket and one 10-wicket effort to show for, an indication that his effect in the outcome of a match has been reduced quite significantly.

Harbhajan’s impact is also reduced substantially while playing away from the helpful home conditions. Agreed, even the great Kumble has a better record on Indian pitches compared to his performances abroad, but there isn’t as significant a shift as in Harbhajan’s case.

While the leg-spinner has 350 wickets at home from 63 matches, he also has 269 sticks from 69 matches away at strike rates of 59.4 and 74.5 respectively. With a whopping 258 wickets in 52 matches at 63.3, Harbhajan is a giant in Indian conditions. His wicket-taking ability, however, is curtailed to a large extent in unfamiliar venues -- 148 victims in 46 appearances at 76.3.

Comments like ‘blessing in disguise’ after his injury-enforced exit might sound a bit harsh, but with returns like these, the Punjab bowler doesn’t have much to say in his defence either. Where his senior team-mate Kumble was the perfect benchmark to emulate, Harbhajan is fast proving to be hardly a tough act to follow for future generations of spinners.

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