Ponting's revival puts Harbhajan in a spin
Ricky Ponting brought up his 34th Test hundred with a workmanlike single to the leg side and celebrated quietly. It had been that sort of an innings, hard-working and measured; uncharacteristic, yet full of character. The hundred could have been an occasion for release because the series had been an almighty struggle; instead, it brought a gentle waving of the bat, a few nods to himself, a handshake from his batting partner and a quick resumption of business. And yes, Harbhajan Singh was the bowler.
The first three Tests had tested Ponting's skills and character. He had been able to shrug off his failures in the first Test - bowled by an unplayable ball from Zaheer Khan and was drawn in to poking an offbreak to first slip from Harbhajan - but the failures continued to mount: Sydney became a public relations disaster, a Test was lost in Perth where he was made to look like a novice by a teenager, and suddenly passing clouds became a storm.
Ponting took the hard route to haul himself out of the hole. It helped that the openers had put on 159, the pitch was easy and Australia didn't need to press on. It allowed Ponting the space to gather himself and plot his revival. The innings featured more dabs and nudges than pulls and punches. Instead of trying to pepper the fence, he worked the spaces. The journey to his first fifty took 114 balls but there was no dishonour in the toil.
There was a bit more urgency upon the resumption of his innings this morning but still the fluency was missing. An attempted pull resulted in the ball grazing his helmet and flying over the keeper's outstretched hands; he would have been mortified to be given out had the ball been gathered and was grateful for the four that was awarded. Only nine more featured in his innings, which was otherwise studded by singles - 63 of them. But a fallow streak had ended; Ponting had been given a reminder of his mortality and scrapped his way back. It was not an innings of majesty or exuberance but one of quiet fulfilment, and his celebration reflected the state of his mind.
At the other end of the spectrum was the man who had caused him maximum strife. In a sense, Harbhajan Singh must be grateful to Ponting for masking his failure in the series so far. Ponting's eventual success exposed his inadequacy ruthlessly.
India were persuaded to go into the Adelaide Test with five bowlers primarily because of Harbhajan's psychological edge over Australia's best batsman. It turned out to be a blessing because RP Singh managed only five overs before he went off clutching his hamstring. But Harbhajan had managed only four other wickets in the series till Adelaide and, apart from Ponting, had never looked like dismissing a top-order batsman. His failure in the second innings in Sydney was particularly galling.
Harbhajan is a passionate cricketer - he celebrated his second half-century of the series yesterday by thumping his chest - but the truth is that he has batted better in this series than he has bowled. His average would look spectacular if reversed: 27 with the bat and 61.25 with the ball. Sometimes, numbers can be misleading. In case of Ishant Sharma, who has six wickets at just under 60, they are downright cruel. But in Harbhajan's case they tell a tale of wretched ineffectiveness.
|In a sense, Harbhajan Singh must be grateful to Ponting for masking his failure in the series so far. Ponting's eventual success exposed his inadequacy ruthlessly|
With Anil Kumble struggling with visible physical discomfort, Harbhajan was pushed into the role of lead spinner for the best part of the innings. It took him 47 overs to gain his first wicket but it was not merely a question of not being able to fill up the wickets column - the far bigger worry was that he didn't look good enough. Yesterday, he had started his spell by bowling wide to Matthew Hayden, and toady continued to be flat and bereft of ideas. The closest he came to claiming a wicket in the first two sessions was when he pleaded for a catch at forward short-leg: the ball had missed the bat by a foot.
Harbhajan has little patience with unsolicited advice and he bristled when a journalist suggested he was bowling flatter. But he was shown up by a part-timer. Virender Sehwag tossed the ball up, drifted it away from the batsman, and managed to spin it back. Sehwag now has four wickets in two innings and has looked the better offspinner in every spell.
There might yet be an opportunity for Harbhajan to bowl again in this Test but, with Ponting finding his footing, he might need to discover some new ways of getting wickets.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo