G Rajaraman - Keep the Faith

India is blessed with the fact that Harbhajan Singh has come of age as a senior spinner

Tuesday, November 04, 2021
After Kumble, who? Bhajji, of course

It has been less than two days since Anil Kumble announced his retirement from Test cricket and even his reassurances that the Indian team is in able hands and has the potential to dominate all forms of the game do not appear to calm down nerves of those who wonder who will step into Anil Kumble's shoes.

I believe India must stop looking for a replacement for Kumble as a wrist-spinner. It must come to terms with the fact that there really can be no replacement for a unique bowler like him. The nation has spent a decade and a half searching for someone to take Kapil Dev's spot as a quality all-rounder and must not make a similar mistake with Kumble.

Then again, it will not be wrong to expect Harbhajan Singh to seamlessly take over the responsibilities of being India's premier spin bowler. In fact, he has borne the cross with a great deal of panache every time Kumble has been absent from the Test line-up, most notably when he claimed 32 Australian scalps to star in India's 2001 home series victory.

How many other countries can boast of having a spinner with 299 Test wickets in their ranks? Sri Lanka is the only one that can draw strength from the presence of a spinner who has more wickets than Harbhajan Singh. Muttiah Muralithran's current tally of 756 wickets makes him the world leader

In fact, only two other contemporary bowlers – South African paceman Makhaya Ntini and Sri Lankan seamer Chaminda Vaas – have more wickets than Harbhajan Singh but do not forget that the Indian off-spinner in still in his 29th year and has the experience of bowling in 71 Tests already.

And in the recent years, there has been a pronounced improvement in the quality and depth of Indian pace bowling where left-armer Zaheer Khan (188 wickets) has emerged as the undisputed leader. Ishant Sharma (34 wickets) has teamed up with Zaheer Khan to challenge the best batsmen.

Irfan Pathan (100 wickets), S Sreesanth (50). RP Singh (40) and Munaf Patel (28)are the others who have already experienced the unparalleled joy of contributing to Test victories for India. So things are not as bleak as they may seem on a cursory look at the Indian team in the wake of Kumble's departure.

What's more, India can count itself lucky that 25-year-old Amit Mishra has sharpened his skill on the anvil of domestic cricket for a number of years before making his Test debut with a five-for in the Mohali Test against Australia last month. He does come across as a being closer to a finished product than someone who is at the start of the learning curve.

The good thing is that Mishra has Piyush Chawla snapping at his heels. The younger leg-spinner has already made an impact with the quality of his bowling in one-day internationals. And with a bit more experience, Chawla can provide the selectors with a pleasant headache and the opposition with a worrisome headache.

Somewhere down the line, left-arm spinner Murali Kartik has allowed India to make him the forgotten man. He had a wonderful season in English County cricket last year when he bagged 51 wickets but did not do enough at home to keep the spotlight on him. With the selectors looking ahead at Hyderabad's Pragyan Ojha, it looks uphill for Kartik.

To return to Harbhajan Singh, the infamous slapgate incident featuring S Sreesanth gave him the time to introspect and channel his aggression into his bowling. He has taken 24 wickets in five Tests since he served the 11-match ban during the IPL tournament. With his growing maturity, there is reason to believe that he will be India's bowling leader.

He has been a different bowler in Kumbe's presence and in fact, we may now see the blossoming of Harbhajan Singh as a craftier, more attacking and more creative off-spin bowler than we have in the past decade. I am sure you will agree that this is an interesting prospect.