A couple of months back, in one of his articles at Cricinfo, Harsha Bhogle wrote about India’s triumph at test cricket — Being on the top of the ICC Test Cricket rankings. It looked like one of his regular writeups, one of those you can read out while silently nodding your head in agreement and adding Harsha’s insight to your knowledge of the game. But there was one line, in fact two, that stood out. For once, I didn’t agree. I felt like digging deep and evaluating his statements further.
So what were those lines, then? Here is one of them, and I quote: “Amit Mishra and Sreesanth have had their moments in the sun, and Harbhajan has taken more wickets than many of us think he has“. It sounded like, “okay, lets not be too harsh on this guy, he has not been that bad”.
I am not sure if Harbhajan has ever dug into cricinfo’s statsguru and appreciated its beauty apart from doing some serious retrospection but here I am going to do just that.
Initially, I had thought to keep it simple — compare Harbhajan’s first four years in International Cricket with his last four years. It is still simple, just that I then accommodated his years in between, in my analysis. So, we have phases of 1997-2002, 2006- till date and from 2003 till end of 2005. These are the first four years, the last four years and the years in between.
Since making his debut in 1997, till the end of 2002 (31-12-2002), Harbhajan played 33 test matches. His average stood at a gleaming 26.59. His SR was 60.4 and 11 times in these 33 tests he had taken 5 (or more) wickets in an innings(5WI) apart from the 2 counts of Ten Wickets in a Match (10WM).
In the next phase, from 1 Jan 2003 till 31 Dec 2005, he played 17 test matches with a bowling average of 30.33. His SR was at 62 with 6 5WI and 2 10WM.
More recently, since 2006-till date, our man has played in 32 matches, with a rising bowling average of 37.16 and a SR of 75.0. He has now managed to get 6 5WI and once a 10WM.
Now if you have followed cricket closely, you will agree that mostly in every great bowler’s international career, the first few years are rosy. The bowler is high on confidence, gets wickets, improvises, the batsmen are yet to figure him out and all that. Then comes a time when the bowler starts to lose his sheen, the statistics turn unfavorable. There is a sudden rise with the bowling average. This happened to Zaheer Khan, Bret Lee and more recently with Ishant Sharma. But then it is somewhere here, I think, lies the hallmark of an outstanding bowler, the one most likely to be remembered as a bowling great — something happens and the bowler is back taking wickets, improvising again, devising new ways to get the batsmen out and playing mind games. This is when the form lasts the longest. The class shows. This is what differentiates an outstanding bowler from a good bowler.
So, coming back to statistics, if you were to make a graph of the statistics of such a bowler after he has achieved the above mentioned nirvana, you will see that the graph line goes right up at the beginning and then there is that downward spiral and then, in the third phase, a slow but more consistent rise. Let’s take an example of Zaheer Khan here. Between 1 Jan 1999 and 31 Dec 2001, Zaheer played 17 test matches and he averaged 24.47. Then, starting 1 Jan 2002 till 31 Dec 2006 he averaged 34.58 in 35 matches — an increase of 10 runs per wicket. But then again, starting 1 Jan 2007 till date, Zaheer has played 27 matches and his per wicket has cost him 29.39 — A drastic improvement from his outings between 2002 till 2007.
With Harbhajan, the problem seems that he is stuck in the downward spiral forever. There is an account of his disastrous outings in 2006 and 2007 where he averaged 52 and 46, respectively. These were the years when Pakistan, Australia, West Indies and England — all respectable teams (barring, to some extent, WI) completely outplayed him. But maybe you would think that his average of 37.16, in the last 4 years has mostly been this high because of his past deeds in 2006 and 2007. Maybe — because he then averaged 31.53 and 30.17 in 2008 and 2009. And maybe it was this statistic that made Harsha say that line. The glimmer of hope — that Harbhajan has started to come out of the woods, a beginning of the end of his downward trend goes away when you take a look at what 2010 has been. An average of 72.25 in the two test matches he has played. Perhaps the only thing more horrifying than that could be the fact that one of these test matches was played against Bangladesh and all of these matches have been played in home or home-like pitch conditions.
So maybe Harbhajan is slipping into his spiral again. Just when you think he is coming out of it, he hits a new low. You wish to see him giving the ball more air but he never seems to be tired of bowling fast, flat, almost like Anil Kumble but nowhere near in effect.
The rest of the argument has to start with Harsha’s second mention of Harbhajan Singh in the article. He goes on to say, “Harbhajan Singh desperately needs competition to take him to another level…“; It is clear that Harsha Bhogle thinks that maybe even at a sub-conscious level, Singh is missing Kumble. These guys were bowling together for a good 10 years. But has Kumble’s retirement made any difference?
Since Kumble’s retirement on 2 November 2008, Harbhajan has picked up 48 wickets, averaging 33.37 runs in 11 matches. What do you compare this statistic with? Lets go three years before 2 Nov 2008. From 1 Jan 2005 till 2 Nov 2008, with Kumble mostly in the playing XI, Harbhajan picked up 110 wickets in 28 matches at a horrible average of 36.22.
While discussing cricket the other day, someone jokingly remarked that Harbhajan should be locked in a room with a DVD player and DVDs of match recordings of his first few years in cricket. Harsha may certainly not agree. But what he will surely agree to is that with Harbhajan not playing the brand of cricket we know he is capable of, India’s days at the top of the summit may not be many. And while Harbhajan Singh may show his inclination towards participating and producing Reality shows on TV— at this stage, a Reality check may serve him, and the country, better. Surely, the DVDs would help.