India and Harbhajan on loop

India's performances against Associates Ireland and Netherlands have been worryingly similar, but perhaps most concerning is Harbhajan Singh's apparent inability to pick up wickets

Harbhajan Singh went wicketless for the second match running, India v Netherlands, Group B, World Cup, Delhi, March 9, 2011

Harbhajan Singh went wicketless for the second straight game, against Netherlands in Delhi  •  Getty Images

The day before India staggered like drunken dukes to a five-wicket win against Netherlands, MS Dhoni talked about preparing for games like this. It was not about handling the expectations of victory, he had said, or a dominant performance, but how to "get the most" out of the matches, "particularly in departments where you want to see the most improvement."
By the conventional definition, "improvement" would imply a certain progression, visible perhaps or even numerical. India's most obvious progression after the Feroz Shah Kotla game is of course to edge towards the certainty of a knockout spot. On the field though, India are not on some lovely upward curve; or even striding around sure-footed on a sturdy plateau. At the moment, India's World Cup campaign looks like security camera footage caught in a loop.
In two matches versus the weakest teams in their group, India have chased 207 and 189, and made unnecessarily hard work of both targets. Against Ireland, Zaheer Khan led the quick men and Yuvraj Singh the spinners. Against Netherlands, not as competitive as Ireland, ditto. Chasing 207 in Bangalore on Sunday, India were 100 for 4. With a target of 189 in Delhi, the scoreline was 99 for 4 versus Netherlands.
Oh, grumble, grumble, grumble. What's all the fuss about? At the end weren't both games won? At the end, wasn't Yuvraj still standing? Indeed but along with India's result-oriented World Cup so far - wins over Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands, tie with England - is another piece of patch on loop which turned up again today.
India's No. 1 spinner Harbhajan Singh was again tidy, compact, disciplined; and again wicketless. On a slow, low, wicket where his spinning partners Piyush Chawla and Yuvraj were extracting something off the track to at least turn batsmen's heads, Harbhajan tried it all - over and round the wicket, slower and quicker, flat and sometimes even slightly loopy - and still there were no wickets to be had; against Netherlands, far from the best players of spin even on their continent.
After toiling through his spell for no reward, Harbhajan stood near the midwicket fence and watched Alex Kervezee turn a Chawla turkey into a catch that came into his hands like a heat-seeking drone. Had he flung the ball onto the field and thrown a fit, the world would have understood.
Yet empathy plays no part in the taking of wickets. In the last 12 months, Harbhajan has played only 12 ODIs, missing out on the 5-0 buffet that was a series against New Zealand, who may not be so generous should the two teams meet up in the knockout stages. From those 12 games, Harbhajan has nine wickets with an economy rate of 4.30, but an average and strike rate that has gone through the floor of his career figures.
At the World Cup so far, it's two scalps in four games, with an economy rate of 4.07. Were his role just to contain, in this age of heavy bats, small grounds and Twenty20 attitudes, the economy rate could be something he could boast about. For a strike bowler not to be striking, though, is an indication that something is blunted.
Dhoni believes it is nothing but the occasion that caused Harbhajan's lack of success: a big event in which the little boys are trying to ward off one of India's main men. "If the opposition team is just happy to block Harbhajan Singh out, it will be tough for him to get wickets," Dhoni said. "They have to score runs off other bowlers and maybe that is why they are going after Yuvraj and he is getting wickets. We have to hunt in packs, and as long as we win, that is okay."
Harbhajan is one of two leaders of India's bowling pack, and his captain now expects him to react to the increasing demands of this World Cup. It is where most of India's hopes seem to rest now. Rather than a case of Harbhajan suffering from the yips after months of trying to control the run-flow, it is the turgid response of the smaller fries that has worked against the wicket-taker Harbhajan who Dhoni promises is lurking.
According to Dhoni, Harbhajan will step up to the plate, but only when it became slightly hotter. "Well Harbhajan reacts to aggressive cricket in a different way. If the opposition are not playing aggressive cricket, he also lays down. It won't be the case as soon as we are playing against some of the bigger sides who will look to go after him."
The better the opposition, Dhoni believes, the better Harbhajan will be. "As the tournament heats up you will see a different Harbhajan Singh; when we are playing against better opposition, you will see the best of Harbhajan Singh."
It must then logically follow that the fields also set for the soon-to-be-reinvigorated Harbhajan will also be of a higher, aggressive quality. Dhoni offered a rather strange explanation for the fields he has set for Harbhajan so far. "At the group stages, I don't want to have a forward short leg or silly point because I don't want any player to get injured. That is one of the reasons we have been restricted to using a leg slip."
These are all temptingly convincing explanations and one that a captain must offer to stand by his men. Dhoni's best bet is to hope that his predictions about his team's standout performances coming at standout moments will be spot on. It will then get the Indian loop unstuck and get things moving.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo