Category Archives: Harbhajan Singh

Harbhajan Singh The Truckdriver

Rahul Dravid makes Harbhajan Singh interesting:

To have played 100 Tests for India is proof of both effort and determination, and Harbhajan has overcome many obstacles in getting this far. Between the time he made his debut for India and his 2001 breakout series, he ran into trouble at the NCA, had difficulties with his action, was dropped from the team, and lost his father, which made him the sole earning member of his family at 20. I remember talking to him about that time, and he told me that he had had thought of migrating to the US and earning a livelihood driving trucks [emphasis added].

Two points: one, it’s very rare for cricketers to talk in specific terms about the sacrifices — and, often, the impossibly difficult choices — they have to make. Every young kid in India wants to be a national cricketer, but you have to be a little insane to still want it after you become a teenager and realize the arduous path to achieving the goal. You have to be completely crazy to pursue cricket (especially in pre-IPL money days) when you know that your family could face potential ruin if you fail.

Two: Rahul Dravid is an incredible writer; a much better writer than commentator (in my view). I take a dim view of the recent trend to turn the commentary squad into a band of ex-cricketers; often times, I think amateurs and ardent spectators make for better dialogue. But if we must have ex-cricketers, then I want them to do what Dravid does — to explain the strange, surreal world of being an international cricketer without devolving into pointless nostalgia (a la Gavaskar), worn-out catch-phrases (a la Shastri) or braggadocio (a la Shane Warne). For all the new camera angles and HD technology, the experience of being a modern sportsmen remains a mystery to most. Dravid has made me understand Harbhajan just a little better now. (Which isn’t to say I loathe him any less.)

 

 

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The Unfortunate Return of Harbhajan

Why is it that the certain Indian players you wish would make a comeback — Mohammed Kaif, anyone? Anyone? — never get a look-in, but Harbhajan Singh forever returns, like a bad rash? I don’t mean to begrudge another man’s success; obviously, taking four wickets on a comeback match is an ideal storyline (spoiled only slightly by the fact that the wickets in question were English, never the best players of spin). Indian fans, I suspect, will always have a special place for Harbhajan thanks to his Eden Garden heroics all those years ago. He is a charming rogue, and because he performs at just the right moments, he leaves a more indelible mark on our memory than the consistent, boring, two-wicket-a-match types.

But, but, but! We never questioned Harbhajan’s ability to seize the big moment. Like Freddie Flintoff, he is a Big Moment Man: when the plot calls for a twist, he will provide it. No, what remains to be seen is whether Harbhajan will turn into the lifeless, risk-averse, boring bowler once the spotlight turns away and the pressure recedes. On the other hand, could a better, threatening R. Ashwin lead to a better, more hungry Harbhajan? Has what Harbhajan needed all these years is a little competition for his place in the team? Can our stage accomodate two leading roles?

Why We Care About Umpires’ Feelings

I was surprised by the strong reaction on Twitter to the Munaf/Harbhajan umpire incident. After the Ian Bell and Ashwin ‘Mankad’ controversies, I had come to assume that the “spirit of the game” discourse is largely not accepted among cricket followers anymore; most see it either as a vague imperialist holdover or a conspiracy to benefit batsmen over bowlers. But then, if we don’t care if players are exactly polite to each other, why do we care if they badger umpires? What is the legal difference between, say, appealing en masse to nudge an umpire and arguing vigorously with him to call in for the replay? Was it just that Munaf seemed particularly belligerent, or was it the fact that he questioned the umpire at all?

Of course, I’m happy that Munaf was penalized, but fans shouldn’t put all the blame on his shoulders. What Harbhajan and Munaf did was the culmination of a decades-long trend to undermine the authority of the on-field umpire (mostly to the benefit of the the ‘television umpire’ — i.e., the replay and DRS technology). At one point during the argument, a commentator said that players should just accept that umpires can’t be questioned even when they are wrong; it is, he said, the “human nature of the game.” How quaint. But imagine this scenario: if a player has been dismissed wrongly and the proof is displayed on the stadium replay, why can’t that player argue with the umpire to reverse the decision? (Assume that DRS is not in play because it either isn’t available or reviews have all been used.) Right now, I suspect older fans would say it’s simply wrong to question the umpire; indeed, the very sight of Munaf almost bumping into the umpire caused a visceral reaction of disgust and anger. Will that hold for younger generations, though? Will fans accept the absurdity of forcing players to walk off even when there is proof they are not out?

Which leads to the biggest question of them all: what is the source of the authority of the onfield umpire? If every decision he makes is now only validated/respected after a television replay, why bother with the onfield umpire at all? In the old days, cricket umpires received protection and respect because they were treated like a Hobbesian sovereign. (I’ve made this argument in more detail before here.) Hobbes, you will recall from your college philosophy days, was worried about how rulers could preside in a new era that did not respect the divine right of kings. If everyone had an equal claim to rule (because every human was equal — a radical concept), how could any order be had? Hobbes argued the only way out was for everyone to “give up my right of governing” to the sovereign. It’s the same with cricket: we don’t respect the umpire because he is infallible and all-knowing, but precisely because we know he is human and likely to err. But without an agreement that he alone decides, there would be chaos — in this case, the specter of Munaf and Harbhajan intimidating an umpire.

The weakness here is that this arrangement only works if everyone agrees to this contract. For a long time, it worked; people would more or less accept umpire stupidity because they viewed that as an inherent feature of the game (and, I would say, part of its charm). Now, with television, there is a competing source of legitimacy. The mistake people make is that they assume the television will offer viewers a better replication of reality. As we have seen from a frustrating few years with DRS, that hasn’t completely worked out. But don’t have any illusions about the DRS: it isn’t there to help the onfield umpire; it is there to ultimately undermine and replace him. Sooner or later, the king will fall.

Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh

I’ve been known to praise Sourav Ganguly’s work as a commentator; I like him so much I’ll keep the volume up on my live stream when he’s talking, instead of turning to usually better crew at TestMatchSofa.com. What I like about Ganguly is the combination of a sedate, soft-spoken voice with a ruthless, all-seeing strategic mind.

He’s also clearly used to handling personalities the way they need to be. During Day 2, the subject of Harbhajan Singh — much maligned, and rightly so — came up. Ganguly’s partner asked him what he thought of Singh and his attitude and contribution to the team. Ganguly began by saying Harbhajan was a total and complete asset to any cricket captain, always willing to say ‘Yes’ and bring his A-game to the crease. Then, he said the crucial thing to know about Harbhajan is that if he doesn’t take a wicket early on in his spell, his confidence drops and he starts to go into a shell.

That’s a big contradiction. Either he is a big-hearted lion willing to shoulder the burdens for the team, or he is a fickle primadonna who throws a loser tantrum every time things don’t go his way. Ganguly didn’t seem to sense the contradiction — or maybe he did, and I was trying to make his case diplomatically — but most Indian fans haven’t either, even after a decade of watching the Harbhajan. On the one hand, we value his heroic efforts and pugnacious contributions (from a Test century to the few 5-wicket hauls), yet on the other, we bemoan his average average (above 30) and his often defensive bowling. The best I can say about Harbhajan is that he suffers from ‘superstar complex’ — unwilling to toil, but always ready to sense the big moment and seize the spotlight.

The Harbhajan-Symonds Relationship

From Times of India, a couple of interesting quotes on the Harbhajan-Symonds relationship in the Mumbai Indians:

[Symonds]’ manager Matt Fearon confirmed the truce. “That’s definitely the case. They’ve left everything in the past. The auction for the IPL was in January. I remember calling him and saying, well, you’re going to Mumbai – with Harbhajan. He said two words: ‘Aw, true?’

“That said it all. He was a bit speechless. It would be fair to say there was a bit of uncertainty about how it would play out. There was an unknown there but yes, they are getting on great. They are both competitive animals. When two people like that are on different teams, there can be some very real tension. But put them in the same team and it’s a different story,” Fearon said.

‘Aw, true?’ has to be the most understated expression of disappointment I’ve read yet. I can’t imagine Symonds has totally forgiven Harbhajan, given his tone when asked about the affair last year by Harsha Bhogle. At the same time, there are enough other factors — namely, the need for both sides to perform and make money — that they could agree to bury the hatchet for 3 weeks.

But I wonder if Symonds insisted on an apology, or at the very least, an admittance of guilt, or if he asked Tendulkar about it once more…

Imitating Bowlers’ Actions

Did anyone else catch the IPL4 moment when a bowler — I think it was Manpreet Gony — used Lasith Malinga’s ‘slinga’ action instead of his own? As I remember it, the experiment didn’t work so well, with the balls landing wide off the off-stump. But I recall a certain amount of shock: a bowler’s action is his signature, almost his DNA. It’s exceedingly rare to see one bowler’s action look like another (Munaf Patel currently tops my list for Glenn McGrath impersonations).

So, for example, you will notice, as I wrote earlier, that every bowler has a personal habit — Malinga kisses the ball; Sreesanth has to put his hands out and calm himself; M. Morkel has to do a semi-circle before he begins his run-up; H. Singh has to cast his arms back (which Vettori kindly mocked at one point during the Ind-N.Z. series). Bowlers are creatures of habit — they have to do the same thing over and over again, and it helps if they can focus on the tiny things they need to change (a hint of swing, a change in line), rather than what needs to stay constant (their action). It’s always shocking, then, to see bowlers do strange things and abandon routine, as Gony did.

Anyway: I recall imitating a bowler’s action to be one of the chief delights of alley cricket. I remember pompously telling a friend — I was in 5th grade, mind you — that my decision to bowl like Allan Donald had clearly delivered measurable improvements. Imitating Kumble and Srinath was also a particular favorite — Srinath’s action was incredibly complicated but also beautiful in its flow. Which action did you guys pick?

The Danger Of Indian Cricket Nationalism

Everyone’s raving about Wright Thompson, the American cricket-stranger who wandered around India during the World Cup. Regular readers know I’m skeptical about non-cricket fans writing about the game, but tackling it from a foreigner’s perspective does bring out different tones among sources. It’s one thing to talk to another Indian about the game; it’s another completely to explain it to a (white?) American.

Read, for e.g., what Rahul Bhattacharya had to say:

“The aggression, the brashness,” says Bhattacharya, the cricket writer turned novelist. “It’s now something which Indians see that this is what we have to do to assert our place in the world. We’ve been f—ed over for thousands of years. Everyone has conquered us. Now we’re finding our voice. We’re the fastest-growing economy in the world. We are going to buy your companies. Our cricket team is like going to f—ing abuse you back, and we’re going to win and we’re going to shout in your face after we win. People love that.”

That’s just awful. It’s ironic that in our bid to express our long-suppressed voice, we end up sounding so much like our conquerors. Why is there such a fascination with the Australian way of playing, with all its talk of mental disintegration and toughness? Why must we lose our sense of play and of fun for the sake of winning? Why must we lose our own distinctive style?

Martha Nussbaum, another (white) foreigner has diagnosed this trend very well:

[As] I’ve noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

Can India Beat Australia?

I have that sinking feeling again. Look, I know I’ve been wrong in the past, and I shouldn’t behave like a fair-weather fan. For whatever reason, I’m stuck in the 1990s and, to safeguard myself against inevitable heartbreak, I like to believe India won’t win, only to feel the customary thrill when they do. But what fan of this team could reasonably conclude India stand a chance of beating Australia in the quarterfinal?

Do not consider the record on paper, or batsmen’s averages, or anything like that — just look at the tournament performance so far. Going into the World Cup, we knew India’s weakness was its bowling. So far, that’s been about right: without Zaheer Khan, or the occasional help from a spinner, we’re not doing too well. Unfortunately, neither is our batting: we have a strong top-order, but a weak lower one. Meanwhile, Australia’s pace strategy can go awry (as it did against Pakistan), especially when Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson form two parts of the chair. Together, though, they are a fearsome pack, out to crush toes. And I fear an intangible element is missing in India’s campaign. There isn’t the same momentum we saw in 2003, or the sheer will to win in the T20 2007 cup. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the opposition, but India doesn’t seem to have lifted, and they don’t look like winners (whereas South Africa and, weirdly enough, Pakistan, do). Will Harbhajan Singh bowl well? Will Yusuf/Virat perform? Will Brett Lee destroy India?

So, I’m taking a huge risk here and calling it: India lose in a couple of days. Achettup, please, prove me wrong. Comfort me now! (Again, just to protect myself against angry comments, I’m obviously rooting for an India victory. I’m just not convinced so far that it’s on the cards. I’m scared as hell.)

Sreesanth Is Annoying A Lot of People

Via Times of India, M.S. Dhoni talks about his advice to Sreesanth:

“I am very specific to him and told him that he should not cross a few boundaries. It is better that you do not cross those boundaries. If you want to irritate someone that should be the opposition and not your side,” Dhoni said of the Kerala bowler, who has a reputation of losing his cool and coming up with animated gestures in the heat of the moment.

Hilarious. Sreesanth shows why it can be so difficult to captain; he seems incapable of change or listening to his superiors. Add to this mix an arrogant prick like Harbhajan Singh, and you see why Sachin Tendulkar felt managing a pack of mortals was harder than scoring 50 centuries.

Hear Me, Fickle India Fan On The Verge Of A South African Defeat

Sigh. Another first Test abroad, another shambolic performance. (Is ‘shambolic’ a word?)

A number of excellent takes on India’s poor performance so far: read this excellent smackdown on India’s bizarre bias against warm-up games; or this wonderful attack on India’s strange selection policy. It occurs to me that India have tried more fast bowlers in the last year than Australia have tried leg-spinners. At one point during play, a South African commentator asked, “I’m trying to see [in Unadkat] what the selectors saw. I don’t know what his stock delivery is.” He said this, mind you, an over before the end of Day 2. That’s a problem.

I’ve said before that I’m a nervous ninny, but things are getting bad, people. We still don’t have a credible fast bowling attack. (After Zaheer, who? Munaf? Balaji? Pathan? Nehra? Praveen?) No, scratch that — we don’t have a credible spin bowling attack either. (After Harbhajan, who? Ohja? Mishra? Chawla?) And meanwhile, our one core strength — batting — is one to two years away from a wave of retirements that may relegate us to Aussie downfalls (After Dravid, who? After Laxman, who? After…Tendulkar, who? I’m as excited about Pujara and Murali Vijay as anyone, but I’m still scared, dammit).