February 22, 2013

A great spinner who could become a titan

Harbhajan Singh has done wonderfully well for India but his legacy will be determined by how he deals with his current slump

Harbhajan Singh's 100th Test match is a terrific milestone, one that defines his ability, his class and his longevity. He must belong to any list of cricketers credited for ensuring that India enjoyed a successful decade in the 2000s because he played an important role in making the team a force in world cricket. He is one of the great spinners produced by Indian cricket, and I believe he can go on to become a titan.

The series against Australia in 2001 is often considered the starting point of his career, but the first time I saw him bowl beautifully was in the one-off Test against Zimbabwe in Harare in 1998.

India may have lost that match but it was hard to miss the skinny offspinner bowling alongside Anil Kumble. Harbhajan was shy and quiet then, but he wasn't afraid to compete. You could see his competitive fire was always stoked. He had that extra bounce and zip off the wicket. It was his X-factor, and it told you that he could do well.

Harbhajan, now about to play his 100th Test match, is at an interesting point in his career. He is not so skinny and is far from being a teenager, but you know he will still compete. Before the series against Australia begins, let's stand up and applaud what he has achieved.

Harbhajan is very much a modern offspinner. His strengths have been pace through the air and biting bounce off the wicket, and they have brought him success.

It is not easy to be an Indian spinner these days. There's such a great history of spin in the country that a young spinner always seems to get compared to a similar kind of bowler from an earlier generation, which is not quite fair because each spinner is unique. In comparing him to Erapalli Prasanna, Harbhajan has been expected to be something he isn't or simply cannot be; the two played in different times. All through his career Harbhajan was told that his dismissals were not "classical" off spinner's wickets. At the end of the day, particularly today, I think he can say, "Look, I've got 400 wickets, and wickets are wickets."

To have played 100 Tests for India is proof of both effort and determination, and Harbhajan has overcome many obstacles in getting this far. Between the time he made his debut for India and his 2001 breakout series, he ran into trouble at the NCA, had difficulties with his action, was dropped from the team, and lost his father, which made him the sole earning member of his family at 20. I remember talking to him about that time, and he told me that he had thought of migrating to the US and earning a livelihood driving trucks.

Thankfully for him and for Indian cricket, that didn't happen. When he turned up to bowl at the camp conducted by our new coach John Wright before that Australia series, Harbhajan was clearly the standout spinner. It took some convincing by the team management and the senior players for the selectors to pick him for the side game versus the Aussies in Nagpur. He took five wickets in that match, including the top three Australians in the second innings and was picked again for India.

He hasn't looked back since - though the last few years have been tough for him. In a way he is at the same stage of his career as Anil was when Harbhajan came onto the scene. It became hell for captains like Sourav and myself to have to choose between them. Sometimes Anil missed out and sometimes Harbhajan did. Credit to both of them and their personalities that they were able to manage that competition and remain very respectful and friendly to each other throughout their careers.

Anil responded to Harbhajan's presence like a champion and became a giant. Harbhajan will remember that, and the challenge of having a young rival like Ashwin, if handled right, could take him to another level. Harbhajan has to respond to this new and unusual situation he faces with his traditional fight as well as a sense of statesmanship.

There's also another role that he can take on now, that of elder guide and mentor to the young bowlers in the team. Zaheer is not in the side anymore and the bowlers need a leader. If Harbhajan can take on that role, it will automatically lead to a change in his approach to the game. It will mean expanding the range of his skill, which could give his career a second wind. He must do what Anil did: raise his game outside the country.

All through his career Harbhajan was told that his dismissals were not "classical" off spinner's wickets. Today I think he can say, "Look, I've got 400 wickets, and wickets are wickets"

Harbhajan has had outstanding spells outside the subcontinent but not consistently enough. He bowled beautifully well on a turning track in Jamaica to win India a Test match in 2006, and then in Durban, 2010-11. He has bowled well all over the world, but it has been in spells rather than as a consistent effort across matches. Hopefully he will play more games for India and from now he will be judged on his ability to carry the Indian attack outside the subcontinent.

As his captain and a senior team-mate, I understood that Harbhajan is his own person, one who doesn't take to authority very well. I never had a problem with him, though; you just had to be sure you pushed him in the right direction. What you did know as his leader was that he would always give his best on the field and wouldn't hold back.

If I have one regret regarding him during my captaincy, it's that we didn't pick him in the Test match in Cape Town in 2006. It was 1-1. We had played three quicks and one spinner in the series until then and we stuck to the same policy and played Munaf Patel at Newlands, but he got injured and the track turned. If we had played Harbhajan with Anil, we would have given ourselves a great chance to win the match and the series, specially considering that we won the toss. That was one that got away and it was enormous.

Yes, there are times when Harbhajan and I might not have agreed on certain things, and there have been challenges in our relationship, but I know there has always been respect on both sides. There is a side of his personality that is little known or advertised. When I retired, he sent me a card with a photograph of the 1998 team and some very nice words. It was thoughtful and I remember it.

Harbhajan deserves to enjoy his 100th Test. It is reward for a lot of hard work, pain and sacrifice. He is entitled to give himself a pat on the back when he steps on the field.

He has played a huge part in Indian cricket but more awaits him. He must show us the best of his skill again, be a mentor to the next generation of young spinners and show them that the old guys usually have all the answers. Go for it, Bhaj.

Rahul Dravid scored over 24,000 international runs for India between 1996 and 2012