Port Elizabeth:The last we heard from Harbhajan Singh, he was still complaining about the quality of pitches in India. That was during the Cape Town Test, where he took seven wickets en route to becoming the second-highest wicket-taker in the series, and the highest from India. And during the South Africa tour, he has shown he had reason to complain too. Here he has found bounce in the tracks, which the Indian pitches haven't given him of late. Accordingly, he has controlled things well in four of the six international matches so far on the tour.
He has drawn respect from the batsmen, particularly during the ODI series. The South Africans have put themselves under immense pressure because they just can't score freely off him. The Johannesburg choke began during an eight-over Harbhajan spell when the batsmen became uneasy. Even though the chase wasn't huge, the pressure was. At least from the way South Africa reacted, it seemed thus. JP Duminy saw a part-timer, immediately went for the release, and played a bad shot. The same happened in the third ODI in Cape Town when South Africa got stuck in the middle overs, and AB de Villiers holed out in Yusuf Pathan's first over. In that sense, Harbhajan has performed a far bigger role than just four wickets in three ODIs suggest.
After the Wanderers win, MS Dhoni spoke of the role Harbhajan played in keeping India in the game for long enough to gain from South Africa's nerves. "The South African batsmen had momentum on their side" Dhoni said. "The way he bowled, that seven-over spell, they decided to not take Harbhajan on, which meant they lost a bit of momentum. That really brought us back. After that everybody contributed."
A measure of the batsmen's unease against Harbhajan has been the almost frantic moving about in the crease, and down the wicket, to try and unsettle him. That they have got just two boundaries off him in the 19 overs he has bowled in India's two wins clearly shows it hasn't worked. Five of those 19 overs have come during the Powerplays. In two matches, South Africa have tried both tactics and failed. In Johannesburg they tried to see him off, and fell to the other bowlers. In Cape Town they tried to manufacture shots, and Graeme Smith paid the price.
When asked if his batsmen are respecting Harbhajan a bit too much, Smith answered to the contrary. "Harbhajan has bowled really well," Smith said. "You have to give him credit. He has been tight, the wickets have helped him. He's been - today one spun, one didn't. He has bowled really well, you have to give him credit, especially to our left-handers."
In Cape Town, we saw a rare and a refreshing sight. Harbhajan going all out on the attack, often bowling with two, at times three, on odd occasion even four, men close to the bat. And Harbhajan is at his best when he is attacking, not bowling flat, giving the ball time to draw bite from the surface. It is a mystery why he doesn't attack more often, but whenever he does he looks a completely different bowler from the one that averaged 40 runs per wicket in Tests last year.
It's not just Harbhajan the bowler that South Africa are struggling against. Twice in Cape Town, he has scored crucial runs. In the Test, where Dale Steyn had made batting look like hell, he threw away any pretence of trying to survive, and relied on the natural gift he has: good eye, and clean connections. He did the same in the ODI there, backing away all the while, keeping the body safe, but still managing clean connection often enough. The six off Morne Morkel over long-off was as good as the one he almost hit into the Newlands Train Station during the Test, off Lonwabo Tsotsobe. He played a major role in the Tests to help India draw the series, and was almost as influential as Yusuf Pathan in getting India the series lead in the ODIs.
Harbhajan's performance so far on the tour has been quite similar to how he fared in New Zealand, both countries where he wasn't expected to do much because of the nature of the tracks and also because of the kind of form he carried from home series. It's either the bounce that puts him in a comfort zone or the lower expectations that put him in a better space. His test, though, remains in not turning into a defensive spinner the moment he sees slow and low tracks in India, which by the way he is not wrong in berating.