India v England, 1st ODI, Delhi

Harbhajan relieved as confidence finally returns

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

March 28, 2006

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Harbhajan: 'I didn't try anything different here. I just wanted to bowl as well as I have been doing. I knew, at some stage, the results would come." © AFP
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In the tenth over of the match, the scorer in the press box made an announcement that had most people in splits. "The 39-run partnership between Gambhir and Dravid is an Indian record for the highest second-wicket partnership against England at the Feroz Shah Kotla." Talk about cricket being a statistician's delight. A frantic day was enlivened by a few more such announcements but the one stat that overshadowed all was reserved for the last.

Harbhajan Singh, who had earlier top-scored with a reviving 37, spun to a career-best 5 for 31, bettering his 5 for 43 against the same opponents four years ago. Astonishingly, it had come after he had been caned for 22 runs in the first four (his second spell read 6 - 2 - 9 - 4). Every ball appeared to be wrapped with mystery, spin mixed with rip mixed with loop, all leaving the England batsmen quite clueless.

It came after a harrowing few months for Harbhajan - wicketless in two Tests in Pakistan, missing the following ODI series (where there was even a conspiracy theory surrounding his reluctance to bowl in front of the match referee), and a modest eight wickets in the three Tests against England. Some branded him an "SG ball bowler", a few asked questions about his technique, others spoke about a possible feeling of insecurity.

But just like the Feroz Shah Kotla, with four new stands and it's capacity increased by around 15000, Harbhajan sported a new look. Yet one must remember that he hadn't bowled too badly in the preceding Tests, just that the results hadn't been forthcoming. "I didn't try anything different here," he added, "just wanted to bowl as well as I have been doing. I knew, at some stage, the results would come."

Duncan Fletcher, in his book Ashes Regained, has a large section dedicated to the advantages of playing the sweep shot but it was always going to be a hazardous option on this particular pitch. Four of their main batsmen succumbed to swishes across the line - three holed out in the deep, while Flintoff was trapped lbw - and played right into India's hands. "Obviously the sweep shot gives you the option to get an lbw or a bowled," Harbhajan said after the match. "It's dangerous if they are not playing the right length, especially on the wicket like this when the ball is keeping low."

Support arrived from an unlikely quarter with Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan's state-mate, turning into an ideal foil (2 for 32). "It was important that we were bowling good balls from both ends. Yuvraj bowled very well. It was nice to see him take that responsibility and bowl so well."

Harbhajan the bowler engineered the fightback but it was Harbhajan the batsman who had given them hope. After a most atrocious slog to square leg, on the last day of the Mumbai Test, not many punters might have picked Harbhajan as the top-scorer. He admitted, though, that he was doubly determined. "I had played a very bad shot in the last Test," he continued, "and I wanted to bat well till the last over. I had to bat with Dhoni at that stage and was talking to him. Rahul and Greg told me to rotate the strike, not play shots, and look to play straight.

"It helps your confidence if you do well in one form of the game. The lower-order batsmen have been working hard. We would like to keep improving ourselves and helping the team cause."

His penultimate act of the day was to deliver the last ball of the 31st over with five men preying close to the bat. The relief on his face, when he doffed his hat and thanked the gods, was palpable. A forgettable phase appeared to have been put behind. It was time to surge ahead. Dhoni duly obliged by mounting the TVS Apache - Harbhajan's Man-of-the-Match award - and escorted him on a joyous victory lap. We were reliably informed that it was the first time a wicketkeeper from Ranchi and an offspinner from Jalandhar had ridden around half the Kotla at 4:35 in the evening.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo

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