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'You play with the batsman's mind or you let him settle'

Harbhajan Singh talks about how spinners should bowl during Powerplays, at the death in Twenty20s, and on flat Indian pitches

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi

February 15, 2011

Comments: 31 | Text size: A | A

Harbhajan Singh in action during his three-wicket spell, India v Sri Lanka, Tri-series, 2nd ODI, Mirpur, January 5, 2010
"In the Powerplay if you try to toss it up more than a couple of times you might end up leaking too many runs" © Associated Press
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This will be the first World Cup after the Twenty20 format has been established. The batsmen's mindset has changed now and they are far more bold and adventurous. What has been the impact on the spinners?
That is right. After the IPL all the batsmen, even the domestic ones, actually back themselves that they can clear the field at any point of time. Even I feel that now [as a batsman], because Twenty20 gives you the liberty to hit. Even if you fail it's fine - you hardly have any overs and you have 10 guys to come and hit. So you have the liberty and the confidence to hit. In such a scenario bowling becomes more challenging. And if you have to bowl on wickets like those in India, you have no choice but to make sure you do your best and hope that [the team] gets two wickets in the first 10 overs so that the spinner can come and bowl.

Does your defence mechanism keep changing?
It does. You cannot keep doing the same things. According to the situation your role changes in one-day cricket, especially in a phase like the Powerplay. If I bowl four spells, four times I will be playing a different role. If I come in the first Powerplay, and say the opposition are 70 for no loss after 10 overs, I will be looking to take a wicket. If I can manage to take one or two wickets in that period, then I can stop and come back later. In the middle overs I will then make sure no easy singles are given. You have to see where the momentum is going, and you need to make sure that whatever you are doing you are getting that momentum towards your team.

But if you are looking to take wickets in the Powerplay, isn't it a risk as the batsmen will go after you?
It really does not matter if you have two or three fielders outside [the 30-yard circle]. They will always get away even if you are trying to bowl tight. The batsman does not always need to create big hits. He can hit a boundary, then pick up some singles and still gets nine runs. To avoid that I need to plan in a way where he must look to hit wherever there is a fielder. That is what is called "bowling to the field". Then you are at least giving yourself a chance to get the batsman out. And if you manage to succeed then the next batsman will not start hitting straightaway.

If you are bowling in the first Powerplay aren't you at an advantage since the batsman is trying to hit?
When the field is in, the pressure is always on the bowler because the batsman knows that even a mishit can go for a four, if not a six.

Is there a difference between the two Powerplays?
There is no difference.

Then why do teams lose wickets in the batting Powerplay?
That is only because teams opt for it at the wrong time, probably. For example, say you have lost four wickets after 35 overs and then take the Powerplay in the 40th over. The danger then is that if you lose even one wicket you don't know what to do - whether to play the remaining overs [of the Powerplay] safely or to go for the hits. Ideally you want to have the batsmen coming in in the death overs to score as many as they can.

What is the best time to take the batting Powerplay?
The best way to take it is to keep wickets in hand. If after 25 overs the team is 150 for 2, and say, one batsman is on 60 and the other on 50, I will take the batting Powerplay straightaway. Those two batsmen are settled and have the momentum with them, so if they keep going 350 is possible, because in the last 10 overs batsmen will go for the slog in any case. And in such a scenario even if you lose wickets you can still afford the subsequent batsmen going for a slog with the field up. Also, if you do not want to lose any more wickets you still have 20-odd overs in hand to get to a good score of 320-odd.

How do you arrest the batsmen at such a time?
The only way is to get them out. You have to bowl according to the field and hope that it works for you. You can't take chances [in a Powerplay]. When you have the field spread you can toss it up; you try to spin the ball from outside off to try and bowl the guy out, but in the Powerplay if you try to toss it up more than a couple of times you might end up leaking too many runs.

You made an interesting point recently that while bowling at death in Twenty20 you look at the batsman's feet. Are there are any other signals you look for?
It is automatic. I mean, if you are not looking at the feet and just hoping the ball lands in the spot, then you are giving him control. You have to see if the batsman is coming out, if he is staying back, what his grip is like, to gauge his intentions. A common trend I have observed is, a lot of batsmen change their grips when they are looking to hit: normally they either go high or slide their hand to the bottom of the handle to get maximum power.

 
 
"If you are bowling a wicket-to-wicket line, you are ruling out the cross-batted shot as an option, and if the batsman hits, good luck. If he misses it, he will be out. And if he is trying to work around the ball, I can get a midwicket and try and force a catch"
 

Bowlers usually use the crease to change angle or pitch on a particular spot. Have you seen batsmen doing anything other than moving out of the crease?
Some batsmen tend to mark their guard on the middle stump, but then bat from outside off stump, like most of the South Africans in the first Test in Centurion. They would shuffle towards off to take the lbw out of the equation because I was pitching it outside off. I had to sit back and study and come up with a solution: to bowl straight. You can't bowl wide unless it is spinning. You want to bowl in an area where you want him to play against the spin, and you want to get through the gap between bat and pad or get him caught in the slips. You can only do that by pitching on the off stump. But in an ODI you don't have much time to experiment. The best option is to bowl wicket to wicket.

Does that mean then you are not willing to attack?
No, you are actually attacking: if you are bowling a wicket-to-wicket line, you are ruling out the cross-batted shot as an option. If the batsman hits, good luck. If he misses it, he will be out. And if he is trying to work around the ball, I can get a midwicket and try and force a catch. If it is not spinning, it is always better to bowl a tight line and have a short leg.

You have criticised the flat Indian pitches in the past. How do you counter that challenge?
You need to come up with a plan. You need to understand the batsman, where he plays his shot usually, which is his release shot, and then change the angle, vary the pace, line and length. You cannot always react after being at the receiving end. I have to force him to do something else - if he is taking the chance, good luck to him, but I'll look to get him out.

Who are the most challenging batsmen?
[Jacques] Kallis is probably the best batsman I have bowled to lately. He has the technique to handle spin. He can collect singles and hit a boundary easily. On the fourth day of the Cape Town Test, he was the only guy who was comfortable batting. He was the only guy who made me do things differently. Otherwise I was on top of my game, but against him I was like, "Woh fielder idhar hona chahiyen, who idhar hona chahiyen" (that fielder should be here, this one there). He played with my mind. If you are talking about the first 15 overs, Chris Gayle is the guy who can take on the bowling. I'm lucky that I don't have to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. [Kumar] Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are the calculating kind of batsmen.

Can you talk about one batsman you were on top of recently?
Graeme Smith. I had a mental hold over him and I worked him out nicely. He was not batting well. We set him some nice fields and challenged him to hit over the top. He tried his best to take me on but I was on top. You have to make the batsman do different things. You can't wait for him to make mistakes. I felt we could have done different things against [JP] Duminy. He was one batsman who was among the runs [in the series], but he was scoring just in singles and doubles. He was not willing to hit over the top. Probably we could have had more fielders in the circle and tempted him to attack the bowlers. It does not hurt too much if you get hit for a couple of fours but you always have to give yourself a chance. Those are the critical moments where you have to take a call: either you play with the batsman's mind or you allow him to get settled.

You spoke earlier about bowling differently in different spells. Can you elaborate?
It depends purely on the situation. First thing is: what is the situation, where are we, what needs to be done? Then you see what the batsman intends. Then you plan and do things accordingly.

Does the run rate ever prove to be a distraction? Let's say there are 15 overs to go, the opposition have not yet taken the batting Powerplay, they are going at six an over; they might take it after 40 overs. You thought of attacking but maybe now you need to defend.
You need to think about what needs to be done. They might be scoring at six but are they getting lots of singles or getting easy boundaries. If they are getting easy fours then you can't have the field in. But if they are pushing forward with singles then you can attack.


Jacques Kallis gets his second century of the match, South Africa v India, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 4th day, January 5, 2011
"Kallis is probably the best batsman I have bowled to lately. He has the technique to handle spin. He can collect singles and hit a boundary easily" © AFP
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As a player, do you set your own fields and play with them?
I set my own fields and play with them a lot. A bowler is his own captain. I know what needs to be done, what the ball is doing. If you don't know where you are going to bowl and where you think the batsman will hit then how can you tell the captain what you want? You are the judge. You need to take the captain into your confidence and then bowl according to the field. If you do not want a particular fielder in an area [the captain] feels is right, you need to tell him. And if you get things right a few times the captain will have more confidence in you. At the same time I do listen to [MS] Dhoni, who is in a very good position [as a wicketkeeper] to understand what the batsman is looking to do, at what pace the ball is hitting his gloves, how the pitch is behaving. He has an idea about the bounce too. So there is a lot of communication between us, and we believe in each other. That is the key.

What has changed for you recently? Did you consciously work on your bowling?
In the first Test in Centurion I bowled a lot of balls in their areas, which made them comfortable. The line I was bowling was outside off stump, but because the wicket was so true, the bounce was true. It was not spinning so much. So the South African batsmen played on the back foot, towards cover and point. The same ball they were able to drive. And off the same kind of ball, they would walk across and take a single. You can't give runs on both sides of the wicket. A big thanks to Ravi Shastri, who told me, "You need to be talking to yourself. You can't always bowl the same sort of line and length. The first day of the Test you have to keep a straight line [stump to stump]."

His reasoning was that if the batsman tried to go for the cover-drive, he would need to open the bat. He would avoid playing the cut shot as I am bowling on the stumps. They also can't sweep or play a cross-batted stroke as there is a chance of lbw. The only option left to them is to be patient and score runs where you have set the field. [Shastri] felt I could go wider in the second innings, when the ball would turn much more. The idea was to dare the batsman to play against the spin. I worked on that. This was there on my mind but sometimes you need someone to tell you and support that. It clicked. [Hashim] Amla played numerous sweep shots in the first innings in Centurion, and it worked because I was pitching outside off. Later Shaun Pollock pointed out that I should bowl wicket to wicket otherwise batsmen will hit me through covers or between mid-on and midwicket. So in Durban, where it does not spin, I kept it straight and Amla went for the sweep and was bowled.

During the IPL Pollock also pointed out the example of Graeme Swann to me and why and how he was successful during England's tour of South Africa in 2009-10. Swann bowled exactly the same throughout the series: wicket to wicket. He gave himself the chance.

Swann's strength is to vary the pace very well. He has a very nice action, gets a good loop. He is a very smart bowler; whether it is Test or one-day cricket he bowls a tight line. I like the way he bowls especially with the kind of line and length he bowls. I had watched the videos of him bowling in South Africa and what made him successful.

I did the same in Durban and got four wickets quickly. Even in Cape Town, where the wicket was green and hard, I just bowled on one side of the wicket and was happy with the results.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by   on (February 17, 2011, 22:25 GMT)

I liked how Bhajji spoke of talking to people and taking cues from his Off spinning peer in Swann. Cricket like all Sports is about out thinking your opponents. It's always important to consider valuable suggestions & tips given by Greats like Shastri, Akram and Pollock. They travel as commentators or broadcasters but they are in a great place to watch the Game from an outset and give a third opinion.. Something that the Captain or Coach might have overlooked or not thought of. No matter how Good a player is, He must aways learn from the experience of these Legends. Guys like Tendulkar & Dravid have changed course of many a series spending time with someone like Gavaskar before start of play.

And coming to the spammers, Guys - Harbhajani V/s Wasim? U kidding Me? I'd say Saqlain had much more guile in his pomp <96 to 99>. He "invented" the Doosra. Sadly did not fulfill his potential & Bhajji is prolly better now as a package with his power hitting and the intensity that he brings 2.

Posted by nlambda on (February 16, 2011, 17:22 GMT)

Guys, Akram had tremendous control over the ball. But despite that he could not achieve 4 wkts/test. Ultimately results talk. Imran, Waqar all had 4+ WPM. You can explain how "Akram's contribution was greater than the wickets he took" etc. But the point is, Bhajji has taken more wickets and will have more than 414 by the time he gets to 104 tests. Moreover, Akram never mastered the Aussies who kept beating Pak repeatedly from 1995 onwards. Harbhajan stopped them after 16 successive wins. Akram's reputation exceeds his actual wicket taking achievements. I would pick Waqar or Imran as specialist bowlers over him any day.

Posted by FR3AKX on (February 16, 2011, 17:13 GMT)

I'm an indian but I cannot believe that anyone can think of comparing The Sultan of Swing bowling with Bhajji.. Wasim ws in a league of his own.. I feel even Greame Swann is a better bowler than Bhajji as he himself said that he has learnt few things from watching his videos. Imran, Wasim and Inzi wer d gems of Pakistan cricket both on and off the field.. hope the youngsters can take a leaf out their books and earn that respect back for Pakistan cricket.

Posted by hungDaddy on (February 16, 2011, 6:36 GMT)

m glad that the best bowler in the world (contemporary) is back in team - Hail Srishanth

Posted by Prasanna_googly on (February 16, 2011, 5:14 GMT)

@nlambda : nlambda , its really irritating to see you compare Bajji with Akram, i accept Bajji is a Great Bowler.. but no way he can make level with Akarm. I Belive no cricket mind on this forum would accept this comparision

Posted by   on (February 16, 2011, 5:07 GMT)

well am an indian plz dont compare wasim with bajji wasim s the greatest bowler of our generation look at his stats bajji s a spinner and can bowl 60 overs per match but wasim will bowl about 40 overs or so in a match he s the best i think bajji will too accept this he s too modest ..... good luck bajji bring home the cup!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1 sachin cross the 100 centuries barrier in chennai plz we love u here !!!!!!!!!!111

Posted by   on (February 16, 2011, 5:00 GMT)

well am an indian and 'd say that comparing bajji with wasim akram is worse comparison wasim akram is one of the best bowler of our decade bajji got more wicket means he s a spinner who can bowl about 60 overs or more per match but the same cannot be said to wasim he bowls just about 40 overs or so in a match u ve to look at strike rate and averages though many people may over take wasim's stats doesn't mean they re the best wasim s simply the best ....... bajji bring home the world cup bai we love u !!!! good luck india!!!!!!!!! sachin give us 100 international centuries in front our home plz do it in chennai

Posted by Gilliana on (February 16, 2011, 3:28 GMT)

@Jude Antanas, if you arew given the opportunity to express your view twice ot three times. be positive at least once. Nobody likes negative people. If you have nothing nice to say about Harbaja, a veteran and professional cricketer, then say nothing at all. We Australians may have reason to criticise Harby over the monk eygate affair but we respect his talent and professionalism and the way he dedicates his art in every way for the sake of his country and the game.

Posted by BabbarSher on (February 16, 2011, 3:23 GMT)

@nlambda....bhajji is nt even close to skills mastered by Wasim akram..better is so far way

Posted by nlambda on (February 16, 2011, 2:22 GMT)

Bhajji with 393 wickets in 93 tests is a better bowler than Wasim Akram who managed 414 in 104. He will end up with 450+ wickets for sure.

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