England in India 2008-09 December 17, 2008

India spinning into a crisis?

It's up to Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra to prove that they can at least partially fill the breach left by Anil Kumble's retirement

From the common sight of three specialist spinners in the XI at home a decade ago, India might be forced to opt for a lone tweaker in the post-Kumble era © AFP

How much do India miss Anil Kumble? At the risk of inviting irate reactions from the old romantics, more than they've ever missed any other bowler. In home conditions, Kumble was in a class of his own. Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna don't even come close, and Harbhajan Singh must reinvent himself drastically if he's to have anything like the same impact in the second half of his career.

So much has been written about Monty Panesar's travails in India that the performances of Harbhajan and Amit Mishra in Chennai have slipped under the radar. Michael Atherton pointed them out in a typically astute column in the Times, and it's worth remembering just how comfortably Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood played Harbhajan from deep inside the crease. It's far too early to make an assessment of Mishra's qualities, but Harbhajan is bound to come under the scanner now that he's the senior spin bowler in the side.

To analyse his career, it's necessary to break it into two significant portions. Having made his debut in 1998, he only established himself in the side after the 32-wicket heroics against Steve Waugh's team in 2001. Kumble was recuperating from shoulder surgery at the time, but from that point on, it was Harbhajan that was the frontline spinner until he faced finger surgery of his own after the Gabba Test of 2003.

Kumble, who got his chance in the next game in Adelaide, didn't waste it, and Harbhajan was once again back to support-spinner status when he returned against Australia in October 2004. Though he enjoyed a fine series with 21 wickets, it was Kumble who grabbed the headlines, especially on the opening day in Chennai where he took 7 for 48.

Before that finger injury in 2003, Harbhajan's home record was superior even to Kumble, though it's not necessarily fair to compare 18 Tests with 63. Over the 63 games he played in India, Kumble took a staggering 350 wickets at 24.88 and a strike-rate of 59.4. Of the golden oldies, Bedi had the best average [23.99, albeit at a strike-rate of 75.8], while Chandrasekhar had the best strike-rate [64.6]. Kumble's own figures were inflated during the course of a wretched final year, when a succession of injuries restricted him to just seven wickets at considerable cost from four Tests.

Prior to his injury, Harbhajan had taken 96 wickets at 23.33 from 18 Tests. The strike-rate [56.2] too was in the Kumble category. Since returning though, he hasn't been anything like as effective. The 23 Tests since October 2004 have seen him take 114 wickets at 29.78, and a strike-rate of 64.5. The only ten-wicket hauls were against Australia [2004, in a match India lost heavily in Bangalore] and Sri Lanka [Ahmedabad 2005]. Too often, the five-wicket hauls have been meaningless ones, with teams throwing the bat around after raising huge totals.

So, what has changed? The pitches, undoubtedly. The rank turners that Kumble had so much success on in the mid-1990s are largely a thing of the past, and when they do make an appearance [Mumbai 2004 and Kanpur 2008], visiting teams invariably run off crying to the ICC. But blaming the pitches alone would be a cop-out, a failure to admit that Indian spin is in crisis.

Murali Kartik is highly rated on the county circuit, but that opinion doesn't seem to be shared by India's selectors, despite 22 wickets at 25.77 in his six home Tests

Atherton summed up Harbhajan's predicament perfectly in his column. "I am not entirely sure that Harbhajan is the bowler he used to be, now that an overextended use of the doosra - the ball that spins to the off - has affected his ability to drift and spin his stock ball, the offspinner," he wrote. It's something other commentators have been saying for years, and was best illustrated in Sri Lanka a few months ago, when Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan made India's spinners look second-rate.

Both Harbhajan and Mishra will undoubtedly play in Mohali. Just two months ago, they took 12 wickets between them as Australia were routed. It's worth pointing out though that whenever Mahendra Singh Dhoni wants to keep the runs down or take a crucial wicket, it's the pace bowlers and reverse-swing that he turns to. Even in Chennai, it was mainly Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan that reduced England to a fourth-day crawl, with Ishant summoning a superb spell to dismiss Andrew Flintoff.

So, what are India's options when it comes to spin? Not very many. Piyush Chawla did nothing in his two Tests, and Pragyan Ojha is just as unproven. Murali Kartik is highly rated on the county circuit, but that opinion doesn't seem to be shared by India's selectors, despite 22 wickets at 25.77 in his six home Tests.

With quite a few pace options waiting in the wings - Munaf Patel and a fit-again Sreesanth would definitely add value to the side - it's not unthinkable India will soon go the Australian way. For the best part of 15 years, they played mainly three fast bowlers alongside Shane Warne. Sadly for India, there's no Warne on the horizon, and it's up to Harbhajan and Mishra to prove that they can at least partially fill the breach left by Kumble's retirement.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • surya on December 20, 2008, 15:37 GMT

    frankly bhajji has not performed well in home conditions as he used to..There was a time not long ago,when he used to run through oppositions.just because he picks up a couple in an innings doesnt mean he is bowling well..The truth is the conditions are good enough for more..As for bowling well away,he is yet to prove himself.He bowls too fast and too short but the real issue with him is he doesnt react well when he is attacked or wicketless..He looks pedestrain when you loft him a couple of times..And that quicker delivery of his.That ball used to be a wicket taking weapon but as athy says too much variations and fewer stock ones..The same applies to chawla..Mishra turns turns the ball better..But I suppose it is time we need to lessen the burden the two quicks have been carrying through by adding another or else they will end up in hospitals soon

  • s.sriram on December 20, 2008, 8:54 GMT

    first things first i think mr.dileep premachandran has mentioned only three great spinners and totally forgotten about the venkatraghavan a lion hearted cricketer par excellence in 1970 in england he bowled along side bedi chandra pras and he not only bowled sucessfully but also converted the half chances in forward and backward short leg positions along with eknath solkar these catches made bedi pras and chandra better bowlers its very ironical when mentioning about spinners dileep has forgotten venkats name

  • Gargesh on December 19, 2008, 6:48 GMT

    According to me if we want to invest in the future we should give Piyush Chawla a long run in both formats of the game. I was surprised that Amit Mishra was picked ahead of him in the Australia series that too just a few days after his five wicket haul against Ponting & Co. for India A. Chawla is young, intelligent, possesses a great wrong 'un and also spins his leg break a lot. His batting is also handy. His last series was the Asia Cup which was played on some of the worst pitches in the world that were nothing short of Bowlers Graveyards. Cmon Mr. Srikanth and Co. toss the ball upto Chawla and see the magic unfold.

  • Paddy on December 19, 2008, 4:47 GMT

    Anil Kumble did a brilliant job and was the match winner on home soil. Indian team relied heavily on him and it suited the circumstances as Harbajan Singh was the only other bowler capable of taking 5 wickets or more in an innings. As expected, this also exposed India especially when the wickets did not offer any help to the spinners. But now the team has a well balanced attack and showing signs of possessing the ability and the variety to bowl oppositions out on any wicket by sharing the load which is what a team needs if they have to get to the top in world cricket.

  • Bunty on December 19, 2008, 2:15 GMT

    Harbhajan is a shadow of his past is agreeable. I think after the barrage he got from Afridi and his subsequent ejection from the team has made him markedly defensive. To take Atherton as an astute judge of the game is hilarious. This guy other than talk inanties did not have one cricketing tactic which worked in his tenure as captain. Look at his batting and captaincy record. In no way did the Sri Lankans make the Indian team look second rate. India actually won the second test and if the crucial decision on Sangakarra not gone against them probably would have won that too. Harbhajan had a key hand in the second and third test. Talking about Kumble - he should have been dropped when he so miserably failed to bowl out South Africa when India had a great chance to go up 2-1 instead ended up losing the test match. Both Kumble and Dravid have managed to be in the team for last two years without a single performance to justify their presence.

  • sandeep on December 19, 2008, 1:53 GMT

    Good and timely article. Bhajji has clearly peaked already & is struggling. If he cant be effective and a killer on Indian wickets, then he's clearly on the decline. So Long Bhajji. BCCI selectors have to groom some young spinners... its unfathomable that India is having problems finding a killer spinner.

  • Ashok on December 19, 2008, 0:50 GMT

    During past 6 decades, India produced a wealth of spinners, all different in style. Vinoo Mankad overlapped his playing career with SP Gupte, Ghulam Ahmad, Nadkarni and Durani. Jasu Patel cane a bit later. But the interesting point was Nadkarni and Mankad could bowl for hours with accuracy, control & guile. Gupte turned the ball prodigiously. We had Chandrasekhar, Prasanna followed by Kumble. Both Chandra and Kumble bowled at a much quicker pace with less turn but plenty of bounce unlike Gupte. Now we have Harbhajan bowling off spin, Mishar and Chawla bowling leg spin & Kartik bowling left hand spin and supported by Yuvraj & Sehwag. These are relatively inexperienced but have good potential. India is not spinning into crisis. It is true that ODI & 20 over games have been destructive for spinners with lack of enthusiam for spin bowling. This is one reason that even spinners are pushing the ball faster rather than flight it. We need to train these spinners approriately for test matches.

  • Arun on December 18, 2008, 22:40 GMT

    Come on! I don't know why you are referring to fielding a single spinner in the team as a crisis!

    As they say, we should always field the best 4 bowlers and if our best bowlers are all fast bowlers and are capable of picking up wickets in any kind of pitch/situation, there is nothing wrong with having all 4 of them play together.

    I am sure Bhaji and Amit are capable enough to play their part even if only one of them is there or two. What matters is if the whole team is picking up 20 wickets and not whether a single bowler is doing that!

  • Karan on December 18, 2008, 21:49 GMT

    Hey Dileep, I think your article contains pertinent views. Harbhajan is a pale shadow of his former self. He might have taken 310 wickets. But on a pitch, which was worm out, where the ball was biting and jumping. Both of the spinners could not do anything, in front of the home crowd. Indian spinning is surely in crisis. Harbhajan should let the bowl do the talking, rather than making caustic comments in press conferences.

  • Niren on December 18, 2008, 20:50 GMT

    Isn't Harbhajan the second highest wicket taker in Tests for 2008? I dont know what the fuss is about Harbhajan.

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