March 29, 2020
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All About Twirlymen

Ashwin and Ojha’s star turn gives India a spinning hope. Bhajji’s fate rests on his tenacity.

All About Twirlymen
All About Twirlymen
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Top Indian Debutants

  • 16-136 N.D. Hirwani vs West Indies, Chennai, 1987-88
  • 9-128 R. Ashwin vs West Indies, Delhi, 2011-12
  • 8-167 D.R. Doshi vs Australia, Chennai, 1979-80
  • 7-81 Shivlal Yadav vs Australia, Bangalore, 1979-80
  • 7-97 M. Patel vs England, Mohali, 2005-06
  • 7-106 A. Mishra vs Australia, Mohali, 2008-09
  • 7-116 S. Abid Ali vs Australia, Adelaide, 1967-68
  • 7-132 V.V. Kumar vs Pakistan, Delhi, 1960-61

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What would Harbhajan Singh have done to the West Indians in the first Test in Delhi? Now, that’s idle speculation, for he didn’t play, dropped as he was from the team. The selectors wanted to know how the upcoming spinners would perform at Ferozeshah Kotla, and not how Harbhajan would. But the consequences were important. The ball kept alarmingly low on occasion, the wicket was slow, the visitors aren’t great players of spin. In the event, Pragyan Ojha and R. Ashwin, Harbhajan’s replacement as an off-spinner, took 16 wickets as India won with five sessions remaining.

Harbhajan too bowled around the same time, in a Ranji Trophy match that ended the day the Test started. But it was at Mohali and on a pitiless track—Uttar Pradesh scored 92 runs off the 28 overs he bowled; moreover, they withstood all the craftiness he threw at them, denying him a wicket. On Tuesday, Sanjay Manjrekar, not one to mince words, noted: “Good day for Ashwin means bad day for Bhajji. It’s as true as that. Bhajji can now do what’s in his control...bowl his heart out in Ranji.”

Delhi marked the first Test in which India didn’t play either Anil Kumble or Harbhajan since November 2000. Kumble retired three years ago, with 619 Test wickets; add Harbhajan’s 406 and you get 1025, the highest number of wickets shared by two contemporary spinners for a team. The total for Ojha and Ashwin, man of the match at Delhi, is 58—the former played 11 Tests before Delhi.

Is this the beginning of an era? Or the end of one? More importantly, what would Harbhajan Singh, the spin heir to Kumble, but a man under siege, do now? He bagged 43 wickets in 12 matches in 2010, but averaged a wincingly high 40; it’s 20 wickets this year at 38. The saving grace has been 25 wickets in five Tests against South Africa in this period. Basically, it’s back to Ranji Trophy for Harbhajan Singh, a format in which he’s played just two matches in nine years for Punjab.

As Ojha and Ashwin plundered 16 in Delhi, Harbhajan went 92 for no wickets in Mohali against Uttar Pradesh.

Ashwin cites the Ranji Trophy as the fieldwork behind his rise, though he’s become part of the cricketing consciousness only due to the IPL and ODIs, a World Cup winner after having played just nine one-day matches. Even Ashwin’s coach, former Tamil Nadu spinner Sunil Subramaniam, puts longer-format cricket on a higher pedestal. “That’s the reason I’m here in Delhi, to watch him in his Test debut—I wasn’t interested in watching him in T20s or his ODI debut,” says Subramaniam. He says Ashwin is a throwback to an older era of cricket—a young man with a practice area in his home, a father who’s mad about the game, constantly plotting new manoeuvres with his ward.

Ashwin reinforces the cliche of the ‘cerebral south Indian cricketer’—he’s very confident and English-articulate, smoothly slipping in terms like “hip movement”, “airspeed”, “revolutions” on the ball he puts. Subramaniam says his other wards come and ask him if they could try something different—“But Ashwin comes and tells me that he’s got results from trying something different.”

And Ashwin is capable of bowling different deliveries, the more visually exciting being the carrom ball, one he flicks with the middle finger. Subramaniam says Ashwin is trying to use the “full range of the flexibility of the wrist and the rotation of fingers”. One of the things he’s trying is to impart more spin with the clockwise movement of the hand at the top of the wrist, to complement the ripping action of the fingers. “With the variations of position of wrist, fingers and placement of the ball, there can be thousands of different combinations,” says Subramaniam. “He’s mentally agile enough to work on them and more importantly, put them into practice with his long fingers and supple wrists.”

Being a tall man, Ashwin’s not one to flight the ball too much, but that doesn’t seem to be a shortcoming. Former India spinner Maninder Singh has carefully noted all this, and he’s pleased. “I like the variations he’s got,” Maninder says. “Because of that I think he’s going to take wickets on all surfaces. He has been a good bowler in Twenty20, for he tries to bowl wicket-taking deliveries even in that format. I’m pleased he’s not got a defensive mindset.”

Left-arm spinner Ojha is less of an unknown entity in Test cricket, for he made his debut exactly two years ago. All his 12 Tests have been played in the subcontinent; by far the most pressing challenge was against Australia last year—he didn’t do too badly, picking up nine wickets in the two victories. He’s back in the Test team after a year now, this time due to circumstances as the senior spinner, and says he has been helped by the seniors and his time in county cricket. He took 24 wickets at 12.95 for Surrey in the summer. “All the seniors advised me to play there, for that experience helps you very much,” he says.

Former India spinner Venkatapathy Raju, who has been observing Ojha since his junior days, says his years in first-class cricket are helping him. “If you have to do well in Ranji Trophy as a spinner, you’ve got to have variations, and Ojha has them,” Raju told Outlook. “Harbhajan has served India for quite a lot of time, and now there would be good competition.”

Harbhajan, the fourth spinner after Muralitharan, Warne and Kumble to top 400 wickets, doesn’t really have to prove himself—or has he? “Why not?” asks Maninder. “Now is the time to show his character and come back into the team. He’s only 31, a time when spinners are at the peak of their game. It’s a big test of character for him.” Maninder says dropping Harbhajan is a “bonus on a bonus” for India—it gives young talent an opportunity, and it could fire up Harbhajan to return to his best, what with the tour to Australia coming up next month.

With that in mind, what do the 16 wickets by the two spinners signify? Dhoni knows Harbhajan is a proven man, and he did say after the match that it was just one match, and “let’s see” what happens in the series. Former captain Bishan Singh Bedi, too, has a “let’s see” approach to the new spin duo. “I’d like to see them bowl to better batsmen, on better wickets for batting,” Bedi told Outlook. “This wasn’t a wicket on which one could judge the true abilities of a bowler.” Bedi says he especially likes Ashwin, but would like to suspend judgement for now.

Perhaps it’d be more interesting to see what Harbhajan does in Ranji.

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