Nicknamed ‘Turbanator’, Harbhajan Singh played his last Test match against Sri Lanka at Galle in August 2015. Since then, he has closely watched his successor Ravichandran Ashwin in action, including the recent four-Test series against England in which the Tamil Nadu bowler played a big part in India’s 3-1 win by taking 32 wickets.
The 40-year-old Harbhajan gave full marks for the way Ashwin has evolved in international cricket over a ten-year period.
"Ashwin has been bowling really well for Team India. He is a smart guy who understands the kind of things the batsmen are looking to do. He understands the conditions better than many. Credit to him for the way he bowled with so much control in the series against England," Harbhajan told Sportskeeda in an exclusive chat.
Harbhajan, who returned to peak form in 2008 by taking 63 wickets -- he took 60 wickets in 2001 and 63 in 2002 -- saw Ashwin bowl for Chennai Super Kings in the inaugural year of the IPL in 2008.
"He was a different bowler. But when you see him now, he is a completely changed bowler, and for the better. He is a proper, proper off-spinner. He is someone who will inspire many youngsters to take up the off-spin skills."
Responding to a query about him and Ashwin together taking 826 wickets over a period of 22 years, Harbhajan expressed happiness playing for India across the three formats.
"I am really happy that I was blessed to play for India. And I am grateful for the things that have happened to me playing for Team India. It’s a kind of journey you always thought about saying: 'I want to play for India and I want to do well'. God has been really kind. I am so happy that I could do some things for my team to win games."
Harbhajan believes that age should not come in the way of a good spinner getting the big break.
"I have seen Vidarbha’s Akshay Wakhare. If he is old, so what? If old people can do the job what youngsters can do, why not they play? Akshay has the talent. Look at his skills, if he can bowl 35 or 40 overs, he can (deliver). If he can bowl for Vidarbha, he can do the same for India if he gets the chance. With home advantage and the pitch aiding spin, he could be a very useful bowler. He will take lots of wickets.”
The likes of Harbhàjan and Ashwin have kept India in the forefront of international cricket. The world of right-arm off-break bowlers has some famous names, some are legends. South Africa’s Hugh ‘Toey’ Tayfield, West Indies’ Lance Gibbs, Australia’s Ashley Mallet and India’s Erapalli Prasanna to name a few. Off-break bowlers are finger spinners who, right through the history of the game, have been in the vanguard of spin bowling.
Ashwin is currently one of the most successful spinners in world cricket
There is a big gap between the successful off-break bowlers and the rest. For example, the practitioners of off-break have taken 10,073 wickets in comparison with their left-arm counterparts, who have taken 7,693 wickets. The wrist spinners together -- right-arm and left-arm — have a collection of 7,765 wickets.
Right-arm off-break bowlers have always been in vogue, be it in the traditional Test match rubbers, or the shorter formats of the game like one-day internationals, which is 50 years old and the Twenty20 internationals, which is 13 years old.
Almost all the right-arm off-break bowlers are of conventional style, perhaps the lone freak one was Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan, who tops the leaderboard with 800 wickets at an incredible average of 22.73.
It’s unlikely that Muralitharan’s record would ever go down, but Harbhajan (417 wickets in 103 matches at 32.46) and Ashwin (409 wickets in 78 matches at 24.69) together have 826 wickets. India’s all-time highly successful spinner is right-arm leg-spinner, Anil Kumble with 619 wickets.
Since 1998, India have been lucky enough to be equipped with two outstanding finger spinners. Harbhajan and Ashwin, although different in style, have always evoked comparison and a serious debate. Their records at home and away are much similar, with both ruling the roost in home Test matches.
Harbhajan and Ashwin have together featured in 10 innings in Test match cricket and have taken 34 wickets at 22.24. Technically, it’s the fourth best combination of off-break bowlers after Harbhajan and Sachin Tendulkar (83 wickets), Harbhajan and Virender Sehwag (78 wickets) and Prasanna and Venkatraghvan (51 wickets).