St Lucia (Grenada): On the ongoing tour of West Indies, off spinner Harbhajan Singh looms as the biggest threat to one person who for long has been his friend, philosopher and guide.
Leg spinner Anil Kumble, India's proven match-winner, watched his protege take the lone spinner's berth in the second Test at Port of Spain last week and, if team sources are to be believed, would meet with the same fate in the third Test at Barbados starting on Thursday. Kumble, with 319 wickets from 69 Tests, is India's second highest wicket-taker of all time but the team management believes it cannot accommodate two spinners in the final eleven on the fast pitches in West Indies. So the Indians went in with three fast bowlers in Port of Spain and would again do so in Barbados, which is considered to be one of the fastest tracks in the Caribbean. Feeling guilty at finding his senior partner being put on the bench, Harbhajan Singh offered his apology to Kumble. "I said 'sorry Anil bhai'.
But he was full of grace and said 'Don't be silly,' the offie added. "In moments like this, you realise the quality of a real man," he said. Harbhajan Singh being preferred over Kumble is partly due to a not so impressive record of the leg spinner on foreign pitches and partly due to the fact that his younger teammate is an unknown customer for the West Indian batsmen. Kumble is a proven match-winner at home as his record of 210 wickets from 36 matches at 21.31 would illustrate, but outside his familiar terrain, he has struggled, managing only 108 wickets from 33 Tests at an average of 40.04.
This was the guiding factor in Kumble's exclusion in the second Test though with 19 wickets at 30.32 from the five Tests on the 1997 tour, he perhaps deserved a closer look. Harbhajan Singh took three wickets in the second Test and could not get off the mark in either innings. If Harbhajan is preferred ahead of Kumble in the third Test, it is not because his away record gives him the edge. It is because the West Indian line-up is packed with left-handers and his stock delivery is the one, which leaves the bat. West Indies has Chris Gayle, Brian Lara, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul and now Ridley Jacobs in the squad for the third Test and against their left-handed prowess, Harbhajan Singh is seen as a better bet than Kumble.
Both have struggled to come to grips with injury in recent times. Kumble returned to international cricket after a gap of one year in the series against South Africa last year but then sat out in the five One-day Internationals against Zimbabwe earlier this year. Harbhajan Singh had a recurrence of an old injury in his bowling shoulder in the tour opener and sat out in the first Test of the present series. Though he still has a problem with throwing, he is considered a safe bet in bowling by the team management. "Harbhajan has a problem in throwing but it doesn't affect his bowling.
With regular treatment and rest he would get over it," team physio Andrew Leipus said. Ironically when Harbhajan Singh shot into prominence, he was seen as an answer to India's long-standing problem of little support to Kumble from the other end. Even when Harbhajan Singh was picking up Australian wickets by the dozens in that famous home series, he was said to have missed at the other hand one man who had played a crucial role in his comeback to the Indian team. After making his debut in 1998, Harbhajan Singh was soon in the news for wrong reasons as he was first dropped from the Indian team on 'chucking' charges and then was expelled from the newly formed National Cricket Academy on disciplinary grounds.
The off-spinner was disenchanted with cricket when a tragedy in his life brought a new focus in his game. His father died after a debilitating illness and Harbhajan was now determined to trace his steps way back to the top. Two men stood him in good stead at this stage - captain Saurav Ganguly for his unwavering faith in his ability and Kumble who made it a point to attend the Indian nets in Bangalore, exhorting, giving tips and sharing his experience with the young sardar in a bid to topple the all-conquering Australians. The two finally got together in an away series against South Africa last year and promptly won India a famous game in the second match of the triangular One-day series at Centurion Park, Pretoria with their suffocating spin.
Though the Tests, which followed failed to bring the anticipated results, the two picked up no less than 60 wickets between them in the five Tests at home against England and Zimbabwe earlier this year. Given the way the team management thinks, it is unlikely the two would get together in the present series. Even otherwise their chances of playing together abroad are slim. A relationship, which was perceived to bring wonders to Indian cricket, now must flourish at the cost of each other. Like in good old times, the two would still bring the best out of each other, only to ensure it comes at the cost of the other!