It is one thing for these players - the batsmen, Harbhajan and Kumble - to accept this criticism and responsibility, but it is quite another for it to be fair, or even reasonable in any cricketing sense. For example, Anil Kumble did as well as India's best new ball pair in Tests outside the sub-continent in the 1990s. Whats more, he outperformed India's 3rd seamer (or, in many cases, 2nd and 3rd seamers) most of the time. Remember, these are conditions that fast bowlers like - wickets with good carry, some seam movement, a realistic threat with the new ball. Look at the support Warne had in Tests outside the sub-continent - McGrath, Lee, Gillespie, McDermott, Reiffel, Hughers, Kasprowicz, Clark and Fleming. Kasprowicz had the weakest record amongst all those bowlers, and he was never a first choice bowler for Australia. He only ever got to play if the first choice bowlers were injured. Compare Kasprowicz to the support bowling that Harbhajan or Kumble have and you get some idea of the kind of pressure they are typically under when they bowl outside the sub-continent (or even in India on the first couple of days of a Test).
Harbhajan Singh has faced intense criticism for his apparent decline since 2006. This period begins for him with a horrible series on featherbeds in Pakistan. He went wicketless for 355 runs at Lahore and Faisalabad in early 2006. In the first of those Tests Pakistan made 680 odd for 6, and India replied with 410/1. In the second, Pakistan made 588 all out and conceded a first innings lead! But even in this period, Harbhajan Singh has done at least as well, if not better than the 2nd and 3rd seamer for India in Tests outside the sub-continent.
Since 2006, other than the mainstays - Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, the following bowlers have played Tests for India - Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, VRV Singh, Praveen Kumar, Jaidev Unadkat, Irfan Pathan, Ajit Agarkar, RP Singh and Abhimanyu Mithun. Of these, all except Agarkar have played at least 1 Test for India outside the sub-continent.
Since Anil Kumble's retirement, these bowlers have made up at least half of India's Test Match bowling attack - 2 out of 4 bowlers, if not more.
|Individual Records For India's Bowlers In All Tests (excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) since 2006|
|Individual Records For India's Bowlers In All Tests Outside Sub-Continent (excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) Since 2006|
|Individual Records For India's Fast Bowlers excluding Zaheer Khan Since 2006. The Cumulative Record is Shown in the Last Row.|
|Individual Records For India's Fast Bowlers excluding Zaheer Khan Since 2006 Outside Sub-Continent. The Cumulative Record Is Shown In the Last Row|
In Tests that Anil Kumble played against non-minnow teams, Srinath was India's lead fast bowler. The 2nd and 3rd seamers in those Tests, from Venkatesh Prasad and Zaheer Khan to Harvinder Singh and Iqbal Siddiqui, took 561 wickets at 39.571. Support fast bowlers for Kumble and Srinath thus took fewer wickets than Anil Kumble (590) at a slower pace than Kumble (74 balls to Kumble's 68).
India's problem is not Harbhajan Singh, just as it was not Anil Kumble. It is not Zaheer Khan, just as it was not Javagal Srinath. Each of these bowlers had (have) their flaws. Each had his limitations. But they were (are) Test quality bowlers. The same cannot be said for their support. Shane Warne's support fast bowlers did as well as Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath - took their wickets at about 30 runs a piece over a period of 15 years.
Recently, S Rajesh at Cricinfo published an article looking at the West Indies' pace quartets. Only three or four of those bowlers could be classed as great bowlers. But they bowled in a team that never gave the opposition an easy over. Because they set such a high floor, even the occasional off day, as most of them must have had every now and then, didn't hurt that much.
India's lead bowlers have had no such luxury.
The next time you read a story about this England series that talks about an "out of form" Harbhajan Singh, think about this. At least Harbhajan's problem is his form. For Bowler #3 and #4 in India's attack, the standard form is mediocrity.