England v India, 2nd Test, Trent Bridge July 28, 2011

Will an embattled Harbhajan step up?

The conditions may have played a part in his misery at Lord's but Harbhajan Singh knows he's been struggling for a while. Going in to the Trent Bridge Test, there is an urgent need to set things right

He was not being indulgent. He was furious. You could sense that, sitting in the stands behind the bowler's arm at the Trent Bridge pavilion end. The lofted drives landed in the stands frequently - to the frustration of the members and autograph hunters - as Harbhajan Singh used the long handle immediately into the training session on Wednesday. "No wonder he can't bowl," remarked an angry, grey-haired crew-cut gentleman, one of the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club members, with his arms folded.

Don't be surprised to see someone carrying a banner with similar words on it during the next five days if Harbhajan comes up with another muted performance, like he did at Lord's last week. In that match, which India lost by 196 runs, Harbhajan had a match haul of one wicket (56-4-218-1). As only the second offspinner to bag 400-plus wickets, more was expected of Harbhajan.

Perhaps, therein lies the problem. We know what Harbhajan is capable of and can do, and we expect him to live up to that. As India's lead spinner and the senior-most bowler in the line-up, he was expected to not only restrict the England run machine, but also create huge dents. He failed miserably and questions about his position in the side resurfaced. Statistics show Harbhajan to be poor in series-openers - 30 wickets in 14 matches at an average of 60.40 since 2001.

Let's consider Harbhajan's position at Lord's. MS Dhoni won the toss and elected to bowl in overcast conditions. He began with three fast bowlers at his disposal. In two hours, the number dropped to two after Zaheer Khan pulled his right hamstring. In that England's first innings spread across the better part of the first two days, conditions remained friendly for the fast bowlers. Ishant Sharma struggled for rhythm, Praveen Kumar persevered. There was hardly any spin in the track. Harbhajan failed.

On the fourth morning, on a much drier surface, Harbhajan found all the pieces needed to get the jigsaw in shape: sun, turn, slow pace. He trapped Andrew Strauss, who looked in a dominant mood. For about an hour before the lunch break he inserted doubts in the new batsmen as Ishant found his mojo at the other end. It was the best session for India in the match. In the middle session Matt Prior and Stuart Broad quickly re-arranged England's broken house and put it back in shape. The vultures returned, on the lookout for Harbhajan.

But Harbhajan is not the only Indian spinner to have had difficulty bowling at Lord's. Even Anil Kumble, who played three Tests at the venue, averaged 41. Harbhajan was playing his first Lord's Test (his fourth in England) and still coming to grips with the slope.

Saqlain Mushtaq, the former Pakistan offspinner, who now lives in Leicester, is another strong supporter of Harbhajan. "Look at the conditions at Lord's - they were swinging. Even [Graeme] Swann who took two wickets - first was of [Suresh] Raina who tried playing on the back foot and the second was [Gautam] Gambhir who was injured. So Swann did not do any damage at all. It was their fast bowlers who did that," Saqlain said.

According to Saqlain, the Lord's Test was a "fast bowler's match" and he was aghast that Harbhajan was being blamed for the bowling woes. "Now if India had scored 400 runs (in the first innings) then the situation would've been different. Sachin [Tendulkar] was not feeling well, Gambhir was injured, [Virender] Sehwag is not there in the batting line-up. Then why are you putting pressure on Harbhajan?"

At the back end of his own career with Pakistan, Saqlain stagnated largely due to his over-reliance on the doosra and was eventually ignored. He went on to represent Surrey and Sussex in the county cricket. Last year, he helped Saeed Ajmal during Pakistan's Test series in England. Ajmal bagged a five-for at Edgbaston and then played a key role in the victory at The Oval, finishing as the second-best bowler for Pakistan. Ajmal, though, could bank on the two Mohammads - Amir and Asif - to never take their foot off the pressure pedal at the other end. Harbhajan does not have the luxury in the absence of Zaheer.

Saqlain says the key is to understand the conditions, something many captains don't grasp easily. "You can't trust the weather, never in England. When I played county cricket the weather would be a big factor. Notice how England bowled Swann and their fast bowlers. They utilised Swann smartly. In the evening there is a light breeze and the spinner is under pressure. It is the middle session during which the spinners usually come into play. You have to be calculative. You have to use him sensibly."

The conditions apart, Harbhajan knows he's been struggling. He understands wickets don't come easily to him anymore, that the pressure of being the India's lead spinner will always remain. Earlier this year, Harbhajan had said that Swann's success inspired him to do well on the tour of South Africa, where he picked up 15 wickets in three Tests. He said he learned to give himself a chance, bowl wicket-to-wicket lines and lengths, just like Swann. He will do well to remember those words again.

On the eve of the Trent Bridge Test, after batting for 20 minutes, in which he focussed on leaving the ball, he went back to bowling in the nets briefly. He later turned to the pitch, bent down on his knees as if he was praying, and checked the surface at both ends. He then stood with his back to the pavilion, visualised bowling from that end and walked away. Yesterday Harbhajan was flinging hail stones. Today, much calmer, he did what he knows best. Angry fans can sit still. And expect.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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