I sat up when I read Harbhajan Singh's tweets the other day. They were interesting at many levels. They explained the mindset of a man who seemed destined to become an Indian hero but veered off track. The tweets suggested frustration, pride, more frustration and, in no small measure, a fraying of the nerves. From a man who has, over the years, shared a very genial relationship with journalists, they referred to the media as 'a joke'.
So, why not a word on the media first? Is the media sometimes a bit of an ass? Do I hear loud ayes? In a little under a decade in television, I know I was an ass sometimes. The print media, where I also spent a few years, does not cover itself in glory all the time either.
And what about Harbhajan's accusation that the media sometimes creates a story where none exists? Not completely off the mark there either. Having conceded ground to him, though, we need to look at the other side. Once upon what seems like a very long time ago, Harbhajan was a champion cricketer. Gritty, tough, in your face, talented. With Anil Kumble around, he could be himself: a slightly out-of-control, hot-blooded, somewhat tempestuous young man. Sadly for Harbhajan, and Indian cricket I'd say, Kumble retired.
He'd done his part, and mollycoddling Harbhajan forever wasn't part of the job description. What that did was two things - one, it made Harbhajan India's senior-most spin option, and two, it exposed Harbhajan as someone who was ill at ease with responsibility, at least on the cricket field.
Now figures can sometimes be misleading, but in Harbhajan's case, they seem to be making their point. They say that, with a tally of 665 international wickets (406 in Tests, 259 in One-Day Internationals), Harbhajan is the sort of bowler who troubles batsmen.
But then, we factor in the Kumble factor. The ODI figures don't make sense because Harbhajan had become the No. 1 spinner in the format well before Kumble quit the game. In Tests, we find that Harbhajan had 299 wickets from 71 matches before Kumble retired on November 2, 2008. These came at an average of 30.96 and included 22 five-wicket hauls. But in the 27 Tests he has played since, he has added 107 more wickets at an average of 35.73. There have been just three five-fors.
Why did this happen? I'm not sure, and I am certainly no cricket psychologist. But part of it must have to do with not being mature enough to lead the Indian spin attack. Not that anyone was counting on his maturity after his antics over the years, especially the slap on Sreesanth's face during the first Indian Premier League. That apart, I have heard experts talk about him forgetting to flight the ball, trying too hard to get wickets while trying harder to stop the run flow, bowling too much of a leg-stump line and not turning the ball, which is what a spinner must do by definition.
I don't think anyone, apart from a couple of burly gentlemen in Australia, dislikes Harbhajan. I think a lot of us have backed R Ashwin and the other young spinners because they have genuinely appeared to be better options. And I think that if Harbhajan were to go back to being the gifted bowler he used to be, most of us would be rather happy.
Truth, though, is that Harbhajan, at an age (32) when spinners near their peak, is not good enough to pick wickets even on the Ranji Trophy circuit, to which he returned last season after being dropped from the Indian team. He played three games, and ended with an average of 102.00 after picking up just two wickets. His haul in the 2012 IPL was a modest six wickets from 17 games.
The wicketless - almost - overs for Essex then are little more than confirmation that Harbhajan has lost potency. I hope he isn't finished. It would be a shame if that were the case. But it looks like he has reached a point of no return now. And baring his frustrations for the world to see and smirk at will only serve to pull him down further. The joke, really, will be on him then.