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India’s quicks will need to find reverse swing

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A BIG LET-DOWN: Skipper M.S. Dhoni has said Harbhajan Singh always does well in big matches; it’s a statement that needs corroboration — particularly after a pretty ordinary performance in the first Test at Nagpur.
A BIG LET-DOWN: Skipper M.S. Dhoni has said Harbhajan Singh always does well in big matches; it’s a statement that needs corroboration — particularly after a pretty ordinary performance in the first Test at Nagpur.

S. Ram Mahesh

Harbhajan Singh, the biggest bowling disappointment from Nagpur

NAGPUR: When did India lose the first Test?

Was it when Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman sustained injuries in Bangladesh? Or during selection, perhaps, when the inclusion of an extra seamer at the cost of a middle-order batsman, in the context of the uncertainty over Laxman’s availability, unbalanced the squad?

Was it in the 15 minutes on the first morning when Rohit Sharma, cover for Laxman, hurt his ankle, and M.S. Dhoni proceeded to lose the toss?

Or was it after the first hour of bowling, when Harbhajan Singh failed to adjust to how Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla handled his off-spin? When the lead spinner’s lack of penetration was compounded by the team’s inability to harvest reverse swing?

Or was it when Dale Steyn, after removing M. Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar with exquisite con jobs, returned late on the third day to scythe through India’s bottom half, thanks, in part, to a changed ball, which, for some reason, reverse-swung straightaway where its tired predecessor hadn’t?

Needs looking at

Test cricket being a cumulative game, every passage of play both drawing from the one prior to it and influencing the next, it’s difficult to isolate one event as being more determining than other.

For instance, which of these dismissals was the reagent for precipitating India’s collapse in the first innings: Virender Sehwag’s — caught at sweeper-cover off a mis-hit, or M.S. Dhoni’s — caught at slip when a Paul Harris delivery behaved militantly from the bowlers’ footmarks?

But with a rapid revival needed after India’s third innings defeat at home in 25 years (all to South Africa), an analysis is in order if correction is to be attempted.

As far as selection is concerned, there’s every chance V.V.S. Laxman will return for the second Test. His presence at Eden Gardens — a venue that’s been touched by his magic — will add immeasurably. Not only is he an invaluable man to have in adversity, his ability to play against the spin will be vital to the cause, for India’s batsmen struggled against Harris’s garrotting left-arm-over angle.

Don’t abandon Saha

The selectors seem to have been stung into abundant caution in recalling Dinesh Karthik, but they have picked a balanced squad. While the Tamil Nadu wicketkeeper-batsman covers two bases, it is hoped Wriddhiman Saha, picked for his wicketkeeping, isn’t abandoned without his primary skill being tested. Saha didn’t acquit himself badly in difficult circumstances, but alas, no selection committee can ever be fair to everybody.

India’s bowling requires attention, although there is only so much that can be done in four days. Losing the toss didn’t help, but champion sides find ways of getting wickets in difficult bowling conditions. As Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel showed, it’s important in India to flog the pitch for every last bit of its meagre riches; even better, if you can take the playing surface out of the equation by doing something through the air.

Steyn found swing with both the new and the old ball; neither Zaheer Khan nor Ishant Sharma, who were outstanding with the old ball against Australia at home in 2008, could manage the same level of movement.

Both bowled well in phases — Zaheer’s first spell was exceptional, while Ishant bowled better than his figures suggest. But without the cutting edge that reverse swing bestows on its practitioners neither could hurt South Africa.

Indian captain M.S. Dhoni hadn’t an explanation for the absence of reverse swing. Perhaps there’s something in the fact that South Africa managed to reap its benefits only after the ball was changed. Whatever the case, India’s fast-bowlers will need to find a way of harnessing reverse swing in Kolkata; the inclusion of Sreesanth seems a step in that direction.

Unacceptable

The biggest bowling disappointment, however, was Harbhajan. Simply put, it was an unacceptable performance from a spinner who is pursuing greatness. He allowed himself to be persuaded too easily into bowling a leg-stump line. He created problems when bowling with greater over-spin, but surprisingly didn’t do more of it.

Nor did he try and get the batsman to drive against the turn often enough.

Where Harris bowled 19 maiden overs, Harbhajan managed just one, indicative of the measure of comfort Kallis, Amla, and later A.B. de Villiers played him with.

There’s no doubt India’s batsmen will have to raise their game in Kolkata (Gautam Gambhir’s early dismissals in the first Test hurt the side more than is apparent). It’s Harbhajan, however, who has the greater responsibility. Dhoni said the off-spinner always did well in big matches; it’s a statement that needs corroboration.

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