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September 23, 2012
Harbhajan Singh: the solution to India's World Twenty20 bowling problems, or just a spin bowler enjoying the simplest of comebacks against a hapless England side? Even in the aftermath of such a comprehensive victory, MS Dhoni was not about to become carried away.
India thrashed England by 90 runs and Harbhajan, in his first international for more than a year, finished with 4 for 12, the best bowling performance by an Indian bowler in Twenty20 internationals, and the Man-of-the-Match award.
"Without playing for India, I don't know what else I could do," he said. "It's been a hard year for me. I've been out of the side due to injuries and whatnot, and the other boys have been doing really well. So for me it was an important game. Getting a wicket with the second ball gives you confidence. This award was for my Mom and for the people who have stuck with me in difficult times."
Solution found then: The pitches will wear and they will doubtless be kept dry assuming the onrushing north-west monsoon can be countered somehow. All India have to do is pair the spin duo of R Ashwin and Harbhajan, maintain Irfan Pathan as an opening batsman to turn four bowlers into five and the job is as done as done?
But the evidence of India's potential masterplan was provided by England, a side traditionally so fallible that Harbhajan could have taken all 10, re-enacted every line in a Bollywood movie mid-pitch and held an impromptu wedding ceremony on the edge of the outfield and still the suggestion that his time was nigh would have been doubted.
Dhoni's more cautious assessment made sense to most observers. "I think I have seen Bhajji bowl better but his performance, if you read the circumstances, coming back after a period of time, getting a chance where he has to prove himself that he is very good, has a certain amount of pressure. It can be his expectation level only, but that desperation level is there.
"It was important that he did well in this particular game - I don't mean he had to take four wickets - but I think he is someone who can do better than this but if you go by the circumstances it was a brilliant performance by him.
"I don't know who will play. We have a problem of plenty right now but I am quite happy with a problem of plenty than to look for who is our fifth bowler and who will bowl. The selection will depend on the wicket. If it is a hard wicket the spinners may not be that effective."
Harbhajan did not have to work overly hard to conquer England; his achievement was to conquer himself. He returned to India's side not as the purveyor of pessimistic leg-side darts, but throwing the ball high with confidence again. It helps your confidence when a run of top-order dismissals reads 0, 6, 2 ,1 , 11, 1, 3.
England planned well by sending their exciting crop of young one-day batsmen on a Lions tour of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka earlier this year but none of them did particularly well. In Harbhajan's first over, Eoin Morgan, more experienced than most, was bowled attempting to cut his top-spinner, a dismissal far from unique to him. Instantly, the strut returned and from then on it was a matter of rack 'em up, knock 'em back, line 'em up, put 'em down, have a little taste, as Razorlight sang about something completely different.
"It is a bit new to them," Dhoni said about Harbhajan's victims. "Even when the ball spins in England, still there is a bit of pace and you can play your big strokes the way you want to play. But in the sub-continent when it starts turning the ball really stops so you have to be careful when you are playing those drives. But they are a very good side so slowly you will see them adapt to the conditions."
"For me it was an important game," Harbhajan said. "I hadn't played international cricket for a full year. Getting a wicket first or second ball gives you a lot of confidence. In T20 cricket, it's important to just read the game. I have tried to cut down my run-up a bit. I was running in too fast, and struggling to find my areas. So I was consciously coming in off a short run, and slowly."
Harbhajan was dropped by India after the Trent Bridge Test last year, one of the few victims of a 4-0 whitewash. He led Mumbai Indians to the Champions League trophy, proof of his ability to perform in T20, but developed an injury around the time he was omitted from India's squad for Australia. He then went to Essex, played steadily if not spectacularly (13 first-class wickets at 33), and then developed another injury about the time India picked him again.
Even after this performance the doubters will remain, but T20 - as more and more people are beginning to realise - is just as much about outwitting an opponent as Test cricket, not by a carefully-designed plan, evolving over hours, but by an instinctive decision that can take less than a second. Harbhajan seems well equipped for such mindgames.
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