Let’s face the fact: Harbhajan Singh’s form has been dipping against the Australian willow wielders. They have countered him efficiently and dominated the Indian on many occasions.
Harbhajan has only ten wickets to show in the last 16 matches spread over a period of three years. Nothing has gone his way in the opening two matches of the ongoing series at Vadodara and Nagpur.
Harbhajan’s meagre collection in terms of wickets should have nudged the national selectors to consider Ravichandran Ashwin. The Tamil Nadu off spinner is 23, has played twenty first-class matches, taken 80 wickets at 27.46, played 29 One-day matches and taken 36 wickets at 27.58.
His performance in 14 Twenty20 matches is 17 wickets at 15.76. A tyro indeed for a spinner, but having offered him a Central Contract last year, the selectors regard him as the second best off spinner in the land.
With the series placed 1-1, the selectors did not deem it fit to make a bold move. They announced the Board President’s team for the three-day match against Sri Lanka and Ashwin doesn’t figure in the squad either.
After his smart batting in the first of the Hero Honda Cup seven match One-day series, Ponting made a point. It’s not an off-the-cuff statement, but a calculated and telling one. Ponting said that he was happy the way his team handled the patka-clad sardar’s bowling and that they have to deal with him as a batsman in the death overs.
Harbhajan has received some rough treatment from the Australian batsmen and it is amply reflected in the score sheet. If his analysis of 10-0-57-1 at Vadodara prompted Ponting to go gung-ho, the off spinner’s figures of 10-0-62-1 at Nagpur has just about confirmed the Australian team’s considered strategy to subdue him in the series.
With neither Zaheer Khan nor Anil Kumble (retired) featuring in the Indian attack, the Australians were right in regarding Harbhajan as the fulcrum. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni used his primary spinner for 20 overs and all overs were scored off.
Australia’s bugbear in Test rubbers (14 Tests, 79 wickets at 28.82) since the start of the new millennium and in more ways than one, Harbhajan has not been the same force in 50 over games against the Australians; a stark anomaly he’s never been able to correct.
The off-spinner has managed to get 26 wickets in 30 One-day internationals. His form, and surprisingly in matches played in India, has never been good. In 17 matches he has 12 wickets with a strike rate of 80.50 and with an economy rate of 81.47.
Where the combination of John Buchanan and Steve Waugh may not have succeeded in manipulating Harbhajan, the Australian team under Ponting has.
In the ICC Champions Trophy clash recently at the Centurion, Harbhajan was almost scored of every ball (9-0-54-0). The Indian’s analysis against Australia in the previous seven-match home series and the Commonwealth Bank Series in early 2008 are a fair indication of the manner, in which Ponting’s team has put on its gloves, competed and nailed him.
His poor runs began in the ICC Champions Trophy match against Australia at Mohali in 2006 (10-0-49-0). Two years ago Harbhajan captured just three wickets in six matches. Then India played at Kochi (10 overs, 0 for 57), Hyderabad (10 overs, 0 for 38), Sector 16-Chandigarh (10 overs, 2 for 43), Baroda (9 overs, 0 for 36), Nagpur (8 overs, 1 for 56) and Wankhede (7 overs, 0 for 31). Thereafter in the Commonwealth Bank Tri-series matches his figures were: 8-2-19-1 at Melbourne, 10-0-40-1 at Adelaide, 9-0-50-0 at Sydney, 10-0-38-2 at Sydney and 10-0-44-1 at Brisbane.
Just the other day Sunil Gavaskar said that Harbhajan is a class bowler and he has the guile and Dhoni has spoken only good words about his leading spinner.
The Australians will strive to be on top of Harbhajan’s bowling, but the Indian may look at his previous best at the Kotla — five for 31 against England in March 2006 — and return to his wicket taking habit against Australia.
Perhaps the only off spinner who has troubled the Australians in recent times has been England’s Graeme Swann. In the Ashes series and One-day series together Swann captured 23 wickets.