Harbhajan plays ideal second fiddle
Coming into the series, the Indian batsmen had a reputation to salvage. But it wasn't just them, for even Harbhajan Singh had unfinished business. This was his first big series outside India as the official No. 1 spinner. And he had detractors to disprove.
After he had scored a vital half-century on the first day Harbhajan attacked the critics of his bowling outside the subcontinent. "Most of the wickets in New Zealand don't seem to be spinner-friendly," Harbhajan said. "I will just go out there and give my best shot. I have bowled well in the one-day series and in the Test series so far, though many people have been writing crap about me, that I am only good enough in India.
"I know what I have been doing, what is important for the team, what matters to the country. If I hit the right sort of areas, I should be able to pick those crucial wickets for the team. It might not be five-six, but it could be one or two, if it can help the team win I will be happy with that."
Harbhajan had a point. He can't always take five-fors outside India to prove he can adapt to foreign conditions. The pitches are not always spinner-friendly, and he has to play a supporting role. In Hamilton, Harbhajan did that well in the first innings, bowling 18 overs on the trot and keeping the runs down. In Napier, he played that role to an extent during the first day, but forgot his lines on the second. At the Basin Reserve, again, Harbhajan had a job to do - to help Zaheer Khan, who took a five-for.
The last time Zaheer played at the Basin Reserve, he took 5 for 53. But on a much more responsive track, he had lacked support as New Zealand took a healthy first-innings lead. Here Zaheer had perfect foils at the other end. In the morning, Munaf Patel bowled a five-over spell for eight runs and maintained the pressure.
The real support, however, came from Harbhajan once Munaf was taken off. He bowled an unbroken 23-over spell into the wind for 43 runs and bagged three wickets. What more can the quick bowlers ask for, when it is physically challenging to run into the wind, and when they are all lining up to have a go from the end where their pace is boosted by the wind?
There were enough variations on offer, both in the air and with the angle, as Harbhajan frequently went round the stumps to right-hand batsmen. Most importantly, when New Zealand got a semblance of a partnership going, they couldn't find any easy runs from the bowler who bowled into the wind.
"From one end Zaheer took five wickets, but other wickets were to be taken too," Ishant Sharma said. "Harbhajan bowled quite well with him."
Three of those other five wickets fell to Harbhajan, who has out bowled his spinning counterpart in the New Zealand team. The wickets were a reward for the pressure he managed to build today. And those three wickets took him - whisper it softly - to the top of the wicket-takers' list in a Test series in New Zealand. MS Dhoni and India couldn't have asked for more. And that's what matters to Harbhajan, as opposed to five-fors.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo