With the well-flighted ball pitching outside the off-stump,Manoj Tiwary couldn’t resist an expansive drive. But soon his leg stump was pegged back and Harbhajan Singh had just claimed a perfect off-spinner’s dismissal.
On another day,that ball would’ve reminded the onlookers at the National Cricket Academy’s nets of Harbhajan’s most recent and memorable moment in the game. In July last year,the off-spinner had gotten rid off Carlton Baugh with one such beauty. It was his 400th – becoming only the 11th man in the history of the game to do so.
But on Tuesday,a day after the second Test had ended,that pitch-on-off-uproot-leg ball made those present at the NCA remember a Ravichandran Ashwin dismissal from the Chinnaswamy Stadium that people aren’t going forget in a hurry – for both its beauty and its consequence.
When Tim Southee was castled by Ashwin late on Sunday evening,it had put the tall lad on the cusp of instant greatness. Apart from the wicket being his 49th over all in a very short span of time,the dismissal was Ashwin’s fifth in the innings a feat he had achieved for the third time in the last four innings and five times over all in eight Tests. No other spinner from India,however legendary,had done that before.
After eight Tests,Anil Kumble had two five-wicket hauls. At the corresponding time,Harbhajan had none. The off-spinner would go on to scalp his first Pfeiffer as the Aussies like to phonetically call the mark in dramatic fashion in Kolkata, thanks to a hat-trick. By the end of that 32-wicket series,he would reach 50 Test wickets in Chennai his 11th Test.
Ashwin,with no such jarring peaks and just consistency,is on the verge of doing so faster than any other Indian. Faster than even Kumble who did it in 10. Sheerly from a competitive point of view,watching Ashwin wolf down these landmarks (and opposition batsmen) in just his third Test series ever must not have made for happy viewing,for a man making his comeback in the side and currently training at the ongoing T20 camp.
To be fair to Harbhajan,though,the 14-month break from high-level cricket seems to have done him a world of good. Going by just his Tuesday’s hour-long workout at the nets,those loopless rockets on to the pads were missing and the arm wasn’t rolling over that concoction that it once did a hybrid between seam and spin.
There is only so much to lose at the nets,but still,if some of his comments during his recent stint at Essex are to be believed,then Bhajji seems to have re-found some of the old mojo. “I’m quite hopeful about the way things have gone here,” Harbhajan,the man with the most Test wickets in the world still playing today,said recently. “I can’t wait to get back into the Test side again. Can’t wait to take lots of wickets again. It’s all about belief.”
Belief,however,is something the Indian think-tank have currently invested wholly in their incumbent leader of the spin pack. Just ask captain MS Dhoni. “These were batting wickets and Ashwin had to consistently bowl in one area,which is something he is not used to. He is an attacking spinner by nature and loves taking wickets with his variations. But he stuck to the task outstandingly,” Dhoni raved on Monday.
Even while ‘sticking to this task’,the wickets column didn’t dry up — far from it. In two Tests,Ashwin finished with 18 wickets at an average of,believe it or not,13.11. So,for Harbhajan a man stuck on 98 Tests and desperate to complete the three-figure set would ego really come in the way of playing assistant to Ashwin in Tests? According to Dhoni,Pragyan Ojha surely will. “Ojha really complements Ashwin well. If one is taking wickets then the bowls a tight line. They hunt really well together and that way,the batsmen really find it hard to score,” Dhoni said.
As a second spinner,Ojha took 13 wickets in the last two Tests. Incidentally,Harbhajan’s count goes up to that number only when his wickets in the West Indies and England tours last year are added together. All the while in the lead spinner’s role. One now occupied by his successor.