Turning it on, Harbhajan style
One of the criticisms that Harbhajan Singh has had to live with is his performance overseas. After all, how many times had he won India a Test outside the subcontinent? One has to strain the mind to think of such instances. Harbhajan's 10-for at Galle last year was perhaps his only genuine match-winning performance outside India.
A difference of about 12 points in his average at home and overseas is well documented. Before the Hamilton Test, Harbhajan had taken 17 five-fors at home, which didn't compare well with five away, in 10 fewer games. For the most successful offspinner of a country that has a proud spin tradition, it didn't make for good reading.
Harbhajan's remarkable figures of 6 for 63 today have come against a New Zealand side lacking in classy batsmen who can face up to spin. The batsmen allowed Harbhajan to settle into a groove, hardly using their feet against him, allowing him to bowl where he wanted to. Nontheless, it is an important performance for him - his first five-for against New Zealand and one that has resulted in a famous win. He talked about that missing five-for last night with his team-mates. It is missing no longer.
"Though there wasn't much help for the spinner, they didn't go after him," Dhoni said. "Once you allow a bowler of his calibre to get on top of you, more often than not he will get wickets or contain you, which is as good.
"It will be important to see him through throughout the Test series, because he is the kind of bowler if he starts getting wickets, game after game, he will continue to do so."
Another criticism Harbhajan has lived with is that he is one of those spinners who look lethal when they are doing really well, and lacklustre when things are not going their way. The longer he takes to get a first wicket, the faster and flatter he starts to bowl. That persistence, that willingness to purchase wickets, is sometimes missing. But in New Zealand's second innings, Harbhajan remained persistent, varying his pace as opposed to quickening it, and utilised the minimal rough that was available to him.
The pitch at the Seddon Park wasn't entirely to Harbhajan's liking. There was not much pace off the track, and hardly any assistance in terms of break. Daniel Vettori toiled for 35.4 overs for two wickets, albeit against much better batsmen. And since the pitches in New Zealand don't deteriorate fast there wasn't much rough to work with.
When Harbhajan came on to bowl for the first time yesterday, New Zealand had a partnership going. Martin Guptill looked really good in the way he attacked the medium-pacers, and though he got most of the criticism for the shot he played, a lob-drive to mid-off, the fact was that the ball turned out to be shorter than he had expected. It was these small nuances that Harbhajan had to rely on, rather than the big-spinning, spitting offbreaks or the bigger-than-legbreak doosras.
Jesse Ryder was caught plumb to a ball that straightened just enough from round the stumps, and Franklin scooped a flighted delivery that drew him into the shot. That he wasn't up against a famed batting line-up does takes some gloss off his figures, but the flat track perhaps restores it again.
Another aspect that shone through for Harbhajan in the second innings, was that he looked to be the leader of the attack, coming from the knowledge that he is the No. 1 spinner in the team. The feisty character that he is, he has invariably risen to the occasion whenever he has had to lead the spin attack. In the 21 Tests that he has played without Anil Kumble, he averages 26.19 as opposed to a career average of 30.58.
There is no doubt that playing alongside Kumble helped Harbhajan grow as a spinner, but towards the end of Kumble's career, the time had perhaps come when he needed that extra responsibility. It perhaps showed in that he had become a much better bowler in one-day cricket than in Tests. All through the final stages of Kumble's career, there were fears over whether Harbhajan could take over the mantle of being India's No. 1 spinner. Much of it had to do with his overseas performances. With 22 wickets in four Tests since Kumble's retirement, and a match-winning five-for in New Zealand, Harbhajan seems to be on the right track.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo