The Resistance

Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh of Mumbai Indians in training
Harbhajan Singh (via Royal Challengers Bangalore, Flickr)

IPL 2016 — 1st match: Mumbai Indians v Rising Pune Supergiants, 9 April 2016

19.5
Sharma to Harbhajan Singh, SIX, carved straight into the Pune ice box! The men in the dug out had to run for cover there. Low full toss, slapped down the ground

It was little more than a tap off Harbhajan Singh’s bat. He was off balance, falling away towards the leg side as he gave himself room. A resurgent Ishant Sharma at full pace meant he was barely able to complete a full-blooded swing. But still, the ball flew off Harbhajan’s blade, back over Ishant’s head and beyond the long-off boundary.

This is Harbhajan the irresistible force. The guy who destroyed the all-conquering Australians at Kolkata and Chennai in 2001. The guy whose natural gifts seem able to make his fielders grow extra arms, double the decibel level of the crowd’s roar, and triple the size of his bat.

After the six, Harbhajan took one more four off Ishant’s bowling to finish on 45 off 31. Not his most destructive IPL innings, but it dwarfed his teammate’s efforts. At one stage Mumbai Indians appeared unlikely to crack 60. Thanks to Harbhajan’s hitting, they finished on 121.

Unfortunately, Harbhajan is not in the team for his batting. He earns his crores as an off-spin bowler – the most prolific in India’s history. Mumbai Indians rely on him to take wickets and keep the run rate down, not to biff sixes.

The blessed natural talent is still there. But there’s a lack of fluidity in Harbhajan’s bowling stride now. He used to hop gracefully through the crease, a smooth carriage to support his windmill arms. Something has changed. He stutters a little just before the delivers the ball.

For Harbhajan’s Rising Pune Supergiants and Indian national team rival R Ashwin, stutters and jerks in the delivery stride are a stock in trade; an intentional variation. They are not what we expect from Harbhajan. Kevin Pietersen delivered the exclamation points: two vicious sixes over mid-wicket. But the story of Harbhajan’s decline had already been told in that stutter.

This decline, this inevitable slowing, is something that happens to every cricketer. It’s especially brutal on bowlers, whose shortcomings are revealed repeatedly, ball by ball, rather in the one-off event that is a batter’s dismissal.

Harbhajan will still have his good days with ball in hand. He is still one of the best spin bowlers in India, which is a lofty position if you consider how many million spin bowlers there are in India. For now, at least he knows that if the bowling action isn’t running smoothly, he can still swing the bat.

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