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December 2, 2004
With the exception of cantankerous old men tormented by jealousy and blinded by nostalgia, most of us recognise that we live in a golden age of spin bowling. Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble have more than 1500 Test wickets between them, and if Harbhajan Singh can maintain his zest and potency, he too will surely be part of the 500 Club before he retires.
Of that illustrious quartet, Kumble has strong claims to be the outstanding performer of 2004, a year when his displays have been a revelation to those who reckoned he was on the slippery slope to retirement. Even as he has waned as a one-day stalwart, hindered by a format that doesn't allow him to express fully the subtle variations that have transformed his Test bowling, he has become a colossus of the five-day version, devastating batting line-ups even on surfaces that offered not an iota of assistance.
It was fitting, then, that he drew abreast of Kapil Dev as India's highest wicket-taker at one of the game's most famous venues, and the standing ovation he received as he walked back with the ball held aloft will linger with him forever. The figures reveal that he bowled 994 more deliveries than Kapil to get to 434 wickets, but they won't tell you how often both men ploughed a lone furrow for a team that has never been renowned for consistent bowling prowess.
Spin's golden boys have picked up an astonishing 206 wickets from 31 appearances this year, despite Murali, Harbhajan and Warne all missing matches as a result of injury or suspension. With his four-wicket haul here, Kumble edged past Warne for the year - 64 wickets at 26.47 to Warne's 61 at 24.22. Neither can match Murali's average (22.02) or strike rate (45.8), though they can justifiably argue that they didn't have the benefit of two Tests against a dismal Zimbabwe team.
But even as Kumble neared his finest hour, the limelight was stolen by Harbhajan, who reprised his Garden-of-Eden moments of 2001 with a quite magnificent spell. Harbhajan has garnered several headlines in the recent past because of his fondness for mid-pitch chat, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that he has oodles of skill and tenacity. The ball that got Jacques Kallis - it was held back just enough to prompt the mistake - was a classic of the spinner's oeuvre, and it reminded everyone just how fortunate India are to possess a duo of such quality.
Kumble and Harbhajan have never quite been embraced as the quartet of the 1970s were, and though comparisons across eras are fatuous, anyone who reckons that they're not in the same league is, more likely than not, talking through his hat. Times have changed, and with them the demands on spinners. Once upon a time, spinners could buy wickets by tossing the ball up and inviting the big heave-ho, but such tactics are increasingly frowned upon by modern-day captains and coaches, who insist on containment along with a bagful of wickets. Both Harbhajan and Kumble have tailored their game to suit the realities of their day, and the fact that they don't toss it up or flight it as often as their predecessors did doesn't in any way take the sheen off their greatness.
The only dark stain on an otherwise memorable day for Indian cricket was the dismissal of Shaun Pollock, to a poor decision by Daryl Harper after a dubious appeal from Gautam Gambhir at forward short leg. Slow-motion replays showed that the ball might have bounced before Gambhir scooped it up. Fielders sometimes can't tell for themselves if a ball has carried or not, but there is a thin line between blatant opportunism and cheating, and Gambhir, playing only his third Test, could be a marked man in future. The game's administrators must surely empower the third umpire to intervene in such situations.
South Africa, for all their limitations in these conditions, fought with characteristic bravery. Ray Jennings had pinpointed pride, passion, patience and preparation at the core of his revival plan - and they weren't found wanting in any of those areas. If anything, they paid the price for giving India - a vulnerable side after the pummelling at Australian hands - too much respect. England, who arrive in the Cape in a week's time, would do well to be wary.
For India, it was a pity that Virender Sehwag, the standout batsman in this series by a fair distance, wasn't around to strike the winning runs. In the age of reason - at least as far as cricket goes - Sehwag's has been the voice of pure instinct, evoking the simple joys of belting a cricket ball as hard as you can. Statistics can never reveal the pleasure that he gives to those watching, but they can tell you plenty about why his team-mates, Harbhajan and Kumble, are so ineffably special.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo.