India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Ahmedabad, 2nd day December 19, 2005

A surge of spin

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Harbhajan Singh took four vital wickets on the second evening © Getty Images
With all the attention on Anil Kumble in his 100th Test, it was left to Harbhajan Singh - scaling a mini-peak of his own with a 50th cap - to obliterate whatever slim chances that Sri Lanka may have harboured of squaring this series. Having toiled with little success in the considerable shadow cast by Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan in Delhi, Harbhajan chose the eerily empty environs of the Motera to emphasise his own claims to spin-bowling greatness.

Despite a seven-wicket haul on the second morning in Delhi, Murali's discomfiture with the SG ball is all too apparent. Having scripted his most memorable moments with the Kookaburra, the SG's pronounced seam hasn't been to his liking. He finished with three wickets here, but the manner in which VVS Laxman, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Irfan Pathan saw him off, while also showing positive intent, said much about his inability to reprise the feats of the second day at the Kotla.

A muscle strain clearly hasn't helped and with Murali slightly off-colour, Sri Lanka's bowling lacked the potency needed to skittle the Indians out cheaply. Luck played its part, with Laxman surviving a good bat-pad shout, and a few edges evading the fielders, but for much of yesterday afternoon and this morning, India made their own good fortune with some refreshingly positive batting.

But while Murali's star waned on a bright winter morning, Harbhajan's neared its zenith. The SG's seam is made for Harbhajan, who has constantly bamboozled batsmen with his ability to get the ball to surge upwards from a good length. Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera were all undone by extra lift off the surface as Harbhajan produced a spell nearly as venomous as those that so wrecked Australian hopes on these shores nearly five years ago.

The non-believers may have difficulty in accepting that something as trivial as a few stitches on the seam can make such a difference, but the figures clearly suggest that. Of his haul of 209 wickets from 49 Tests, an astonishing 144 have come in 27 matches at home. Armed with the SG ball, those wickets have come at 24.68 and a strike-rate of 56.6 balls per wicket - far superior to career figures of 28.53 and 62.3.

It's also interesting to see how closely Harbhajan's career has mirrored that of Kumble. In almost twice the number of home Tests (52), Kumble has taken just over twice the number of wickets (302) at an average (23.38) and strike-rate (56.2) nearly identical to Harbhajan's. When the two combine effectively, India can be devilishly hard to beat in familiar environs.

But while Harbhajan grabbed all the headlines with his four-wicket burst, the spadework for Indian dominance had been done much earlier, by as committed a lower-order batting display as you could hope for. Not so long ago, Indian cricket aficionados would watch with jealous eyes as other teams engineered rearguard actions that decided games. Adelaide 1999 - when Sachin Tendulkar's no-hopers had Australia reeling at 53 for 4 - and Mumbai 2001, when Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist tore India apart, remain open sores, more so because India then possessed a tail which seldom troubled the scorers.

But with Dhoni and Pathan offering such sterling service lower down the order, India are now conjuring up the sort of comebacks that once thwarted them. The last five wickets added 301 here, and Pathan once again produced an innings of resplendent quality. The assured defence and powerful drives caught the eye, but just as impressive were the improvised sweeps that suggested that he learns something new each time he walks to the crease.

Only Lasith Malinga's slower balls, yorkers and stealthy bouncers appeared to discomfit him, and he will once again be left to rue a century scorned. Given the way he's batted in the series though, the next opportunity may not be too far away.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo