ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

India v Netherlands, Group B, World Cup 2011, Delhi

India and Harbhajan on loop

India's performances against Associates Ireland and Netherlands have been worryingly similar, but perhaps most concerning is Harbhajan Singh's apparent inability to pick up wickets

Sharda Ugra at the Feroz Shah Kotla

March 9, 2011

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Harbhajan Singh went wicketless for the second match running, India v Netherlands, Group B, World Cup, Delhi, March 9, 2011
Harbhajan Singh went wicketless for the second straight game, against Netherlands in Delhi © Getty Images
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The day before India staggered like drunken dukes to a five-wicket win against Netherlands, MS Dhoni talked about preparing for games like this. It was not about handling the expectations of victory, he had said, or a dominant performance, but how to "get the most" out of the matches, "particularly in departments where you want to see the most improvement."

By the conventional definition, "improvement" would imply a certain progression, visible perhaps or even numerical. India's most obvious progression after the Feroz Shah Kotla game is of course to edge towards the certainty of a knockout spot. On the field though, India are not on some lovely upward curve; or even striding around sure-footed on a sturdy plateau. At the moment, India's World Cup campaign looks like security camera footage caught in a loop.

In two matches versus the weakest teams in their group, India have chased 207 and 189, and made unnecessarily hard work of both targets. Against Ireland, Zaheer Khan led the quick men and Yuvraj Singh the spinners. Against Netherlands, not as competitive as Ireland, ditto. Chasing 207 in Bangalore on Sunday, India were 100 for 4. With a target of 189 in Delhi, the scoreline was 99 for 4 versus Netherlands.

Oh, grumble, grumble, grumble. What's all the fuss about? At the end weren't both games won? At the end, wasn't Yuvraj still standing? Indeed but along with India's result-oriented World Cup so far - wins over Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands, tie with England - is another piece of patch on loop which turned up again today.

India's No. 1 spinner Harbhajan Singh was again tidy, compact, disciplined; and again wicketless. On a slow, low, wicket where his spinning partners Piyush Chawla and Yuvraj were extracting something off the track to at least turn batsmen's heads, Harbhajan tried it all - over and round the wicket, slower and quicker, flat and sometimes even slightly loopy - and still there were no wickets to be had; against Netherlands, far from the best players of spin even on their continent.

After toiling through his spell for no reward, Harbhajan stood near the midwicket fence and watched Alex Kervezee turn a Chawla turkey into a catch that came into his hands like a heat-seeking drone. Had he flung the ball onto the field and thrown a fit, the world would have understood.

Yet empathy plays no part in the taking of wickets. In the last 12 months, Harbhajan has played only 12 ODIs, missing out on the 5-0 buffet that was a series against New Zealand, who may not be so generous should the two teams meet up in the knockout stages. From those 12 games, Harbhajan has nine wickets with an economy rate of 4.30, but an average and strike rate that has gone through the floor of his career figures.

At the World Cup so far, it's two scalps in four games, with an economy rate of 4.07. Were his role just to contain, in this age of heavy bats, small grounds and Twenty20 attitudes, the economy rate could be something he could boast about. For a strike bowler not to be striking, though, is an indication that something is blunted.

Dhoni believes it is nothing but the occasion that caused Harbhajan's lack of success: a big event in which the little boys are trying to ward off one of India's main men. "If the opposition team is just happy to block Harbhajan Singh out, it will be tough for him to get wickets," Dhoni said. "They have to score runs off other bowlers and maybe that is why they are going after Yuvraj and he is getting wickets. We have to hunt in packs, and as long as we win, that is okay."

Harbhajan is one of two leaders of India's bowling pack, and his captain now expects him to react to the increasing demands of this World Cup. It is where most of India's hopes seem to rest now. Rather than a case of Harbhajan suffering from the yips after months of trying to control the run-flow, it is the turgid response of the smaller fries that has worked against the wicket-taker Harbhajan who Dhoni promises is lurking.

According to Dhoni, Harbhajan will step up to the plate, but only when it became slightly hotter. "Well Harbhajan reacts to aggressive cricket in a different way. If the opposition are not playing aggressive cricket, he also lays down. It won't be the case as soon as we are playing against some of the bigger sides who will look to go after him."

The better the opposition, Dhoni believes, the better Harbhajan will be. "As the tournament heats up you will see a different Harbhajan Singh; when we are playing against better opposition, you will see the best of Harbhajan Singh."

It must then logically follow that the fields also set for the soon-to-be-reinvigorated Harbhajan will also be of a higher, aggressive quality. Dhoni offered a rather strange explanation for the fields he has set for Harbhajan so far. "At the group stages, I don't want to have a forward short leg or silly point because I don't want any player to get injured. That is one of the reasons we have been restricted to using a leg slip."

These are all temptingly convincing explanations and one that a captain must offer to stand by his men. Dhoni's best bet is to hope that his predictions about his team's standout performances coming at standout moments will be spot on. It will then get the Indian loop unstuck and get things moving.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Comments: 169 
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Posted by Nick on (March 12, 2011, 7:19 GMT)

@gladtobehere81 I rest my case! You just proved my point trying to criticize my comment. His "wicket stats" have been lackluster precisely because of what I mentioned in my comment. Batsmen just don't take their chances against him. Yet his economy is the best amongst all Indian bowlers barring Ashwin who doesn't come anywhere close to as many matches as Bhajji's played. HE IS india's premier bowler who gets through the overs quickly and keeps the run rate under control, as mentioned by Dhoni multiple times. Go check your stats first before criticizing mine.

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 11, 2011, 14:18 GMT)

continued.... also even whn batsmen are ultra careful with premier bowlers of opposition, the premier bowlers do manage to sneak past their defenses ..thts wht their strike rate and strike bowler defines.. and its not 2 matches he went wicketless.. probbaly the last 12 to 14 months he didn't deliver.. or i'd say he is not consistent and thts the hard truth.. not saying axe him, but why not take a move by seeing how ashwin or sreeshanth perform.. from IPL ashwin was economical..but again..the strike rate of his..it says a lot abt this bowling venom..he is expected to take wickets..and he does take..thts wht he brings to the table..THE BEST WAY TO STAY ECONOMICAL IS TO STRIKE..its just a matter of time opposition starts knowing wht u r worth of and may target harbhajan full time.. murali is economical..yet takes wickets regularly in a match..its a rarity we can say murali went wicket less..isnt he not expected to contain..he does both the jobs to perfection..may bhaji learns from him..

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 11, 2011, 14:07 GMT)

i ve got to say ..enough of harbhajan..with all due respect he is the strike the strike bowler..and if im not wrong..a strike bowler is expected to strike..not defend.. can do both..but prime objective is to strike which he failed.."PLAYS HIS BEST AGAINST BEST TEAMS ONLY"????? i mean its like he doesn give a damn abt the associates or teams low down the points table???

thts not the way a quality bowler of his stature would see the game... he should consider every game as his best challenge and put his best effort.. on the other hand chawla under intense pressure can or can not be his fault entirely. So , yeah he strikes..but venomous enough. So this is the state of our spin department. On the other hand pace bowling rides solely on Zaheer..i'd say nehra does a decent support role so as munaaf..basically our strike spinner is not striking..bowling solely on one man's shoulder.. no way this can lead to success..some point they'd breakdown completely..

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 11, 2011, 11:54 GMT)

Hot SPOT...

Zaheer the Only Bowler in Good Form... how long u gona Play with Spinners..TRy to gve a Chance to Sreesanth wen u r OKAy with Chawla.. WHAT if zaheer gets Hurt.?? Who gonna Lead the bowling?? gve a Chance 2 make a Comeback.. not by resting the players bec of a Single BAD game...3 Seamer& 1 Spinner is a good Bowling SIDE(Zaheer,Sreesanth,Munaf,Harbjajan/Ashwin)Part tym Bowlers (Yuvraj,Yusuf,sehwag ) who can Handle the Spin Department

this is a gud tym to try the Bowlers . wen u knw that u are in Quarter Final ..

Gud LUCk Ahead

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 11, 2011, 2:54 GMT)

The blog is good. Though i think there is a hint that the author want to cash-in on criticism. Criticising the Indian team and Captain can be a success mantra but may not show the reality. We all have seen Bhajji performing over years and what Dhoni says is true that Bhajji peforms well against better teams. Iagree that Bhajji has been wicket-less but anyone who follows cricket will agree that it's tough for a bowler to get a wicket when the batsman just blocks him. I believe we should criticize the areas where the team is not performing well but keeping the big picture in mind.

Posted by uthaman on (March 11, 2011, 2:11 GMT)

Harbhajan has descended into a defensive bowler who cannot bowl wicket taking deliveries anymore. Most of the supports for him come from Punjab. Anyone who is having neutral view can clearly see he was struggling even to beat the batsmen from associate teams. It is a blasphemy to call him a strike bowler. He is there just to contain. Yuvraj looks a far better striking option.

Posted by Jay on (March 11, 2011, 0:30 GMT)

Some people in particular Pakistanis should avoid assessing team India when their own team is lackluster in many departments of the game. It's a joke to even criticize a team that is yet to lose a match in this world cup. Sure they played against 'poor' opposition but hey, didn't England lose to a so called 'poor' opposition? didn't Pakistan almost succumb to a 'poor' opposition? so please use your brains before commenting. India have openly admitted fielding and bowling are not their main strengths. I find that very admirable. They are not pretending like some teams claiming they are world beaters when clearly those sides can't even beat a dead horse to the finish line. Dhoni is captain cool for a reason. He believes in his team unlike some journalists and fans who think they know everything about how cricket is played. Bhajji is a class act and I don't care even if he didn't play to his full potential against Holland.

Posted by sai on (March 10, 2011, 20:19 GMT)

TO- the_blue_android .. ..YOUR VIEW ON THIS SHARDA IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT...FOR SOMEONE TO SAY THAT BHAJJI ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH JUST SHOWS THEIR CRICKETING KNOWHOW...& guys....don't expect a superhuman show from Ashwin when he turns up on the cricketing field.... Having seen Dhoni's captaincy for quite some time now, I believe he always looks for variety in his bowling attack which means Chawla will always hav the upper hand over Aswin...atleast in Dhoni's books. If this theory abt India taking the initial matches easy is true,that wud explain India's mediocre performance in the field...however, it still wudn't explain the defensive tactics of Dhoni that we saw in IND-ENG match....However, it was refreshing to see Dhoni promoting Pathan to give him some match practise, & also bringing the field up when Nehra & Zak came bak to bowl their 2nd spell...

Posted by Kuldip on (March 10, 2011, 19:24 GMT)

It really amuses me to see how many Indian supporters put down their own team. People, first thing I would like to say is we haven't lost a single game in the world cup yet, even if we have played against some third graded teams. It also might be a good Omen that we haven't peeked to quick. Second thing, how quick are people to judge and disrespect Harbajan Singh, people are very quick to throw their 2 pence worth but could you perform better than him? If yes, then why aren't you playing for India. India at the present time do not have a naturally good spin option and Harbajan Singh is the option, all the other spinners India have selected in the past have leaked runs and have not been consistent. At least with Harbajan Singh, the Indian team has that extra option of squeezing the run rate and create a different type of pressure for the opponent.

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 10, 2011, 17:07 GMT)

Harbhajan Singh a strike bowler? *rofls* x)

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