Harbhajan the right man for a scrap
Harbhajan Singh has come in for criticism for his bowling over the last year, not unjustifiably, as his average of 40.69 suggests. However, when it comes down to a scrap, you want him in your corner. And whether he was batting or bowling today, it was a scrap all right. There was no use hanging around with the bat, for Dale Steyn would have surely got him with one of those amazing outswingers, and Harbhajan took the sensible approach, getting his body out of harm's way and slogging.
To the day three years ago in Sydney, in another scrap, he gave Sachin Tendulkar similar support in securing India a first-innings lead. Today, he set South Africa thinking with one four down the ground off Morne Morkel and another huge hook off Lonwabo Tsotosbe that nearly ended up in the Newlands Train Station. That 76-run partnership with Tendulkar, 40 of which Harbhajan scored, set India on the road to sharing control of the game.
"I always enjoy my batting," Harbhajan said at the end of the day's play. "I don't have the technique to bat like Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar or Jacques Kallis. This is the way I play my cricket, and I knew [if the ball was pitched in certain] areas, it was going to disappear. I did hit a couple of big sixes today, but I am happy about it. Would have been nice to get another 50-60. I am always greedy."
He spoke about that Sydney partnership too, and how it has been great for him to have batted with Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. "When I have batted with Sachin and Laxman, they have been helpful. In Sydney I batted with Sachin and again today. They have a lot of things to tell me. When I was batting, Sachin told me to play my natural game and counter-attack was the best option. With the kind of technique I have, I could have got hit on my ribs or somewhere else. He told me just to play my shots. I felt I should play my shots, and they would try to do something else. I think that worked, and they didn't bowl the right line to me."
When India came out to bat, South Africa got off to a solid start, but Harbhajan emphasised his presence with two late wickets. Given the way the pitch has behaved, Harbhajan could be a crucial factor on day four. "There is a bit of bounce, and it's not even. Some balls are going down and some are bouncing little bit more than you expect. It's good if you keep on hitting the right areas, you still have a chance of getting good batsmen out, like [Jacques] Kallis and [Hashim] Amla. Those are the two key wickets we need to get, and then we will be in the driving seat."
Another scrap where Harbhajan has been influential is in keeping Sreesanth calm. Sreesanth has courted controversy with his sledging and been taunted by the crowd, but Harbhajan has made a conscious effort to keep him in check. When Sreesanth got Amla's wicket in the first innings, he seemed to want to run towards the crowd. Harbhajan, though, held him back. Physically. And mock-clapped at the crowd from afar.
"Crowd tried booing me in Australia, it doesn't affect me," Harbhajan said. "Let them enjoy. They have come to see the game. And obviously Sreesanth is getting more famous with this. I have enjoyed in Australia, let him enjoy here. It is not a bad thing."
Regarding the general heating up of tempers in the series, Harbhajan suggested he was enjoying it. "This is how the cricket is being played. When No.1 and No.2 sides play, there's a lot of competitiveness, but I think everything is under control. Yes, you have to play with aggression. You can't just be quiet there and waiting for things to happen. If you feel this is the way to play, why not go out and express yourself? This is Test cricket, not some match in the park. You have to have aggression, and you have to have that thing inside you to win games for your country. They are trying to win games for their country; we are trying for our country. Whatever trouble it takes we will go ahead and make sure we get the result we are looking for."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo