Once arguably the best spinner in the world, he has struggled for wickets in 50-over cricket over the last five years;
For most fans who have been following the Indian team over the last few years, Harbhajan Singh's omission from the Indian ODI side was long overdue. He had a terrible tour of England, taking only two wickets in the first two Tests at an average of 143.50. An abdominal strain ended his England series early (which many said was a blessing), but his failure in England quickly overshadowed the fact that in his two previous Test series, in West Indies and South Africa, he'd taken 26 wickets in six Tests at 27.81.
Harbhajan hasn't had a great time in either form of the game recently, but in this age of frenetic schedules, it's easy to mix up performances in different formats. It's likely that Harbhajan would have been dropped for the third Test in England, but since this omission is from the ODI squad, let's check out his performances in this format over the last few years.
Look at his ODI bowling career summary and one of the stats that stands out is his relatively high average in almost every year since 2005. In 2011 he has taken 17 wickets in as many games, at 41.29, while in nine games in the World Cup, he gave away 43.33 per wicket. In the ODI series in South Africa before that, he averaged 51.25 in five games, and in the Champions Trophy in the same country in 2009, his three wickets cost him 46.33 each. Clearly taking wickets in the shorter form has been a problem for Harbhajan.
What's also true, though, is that he has usually been a reliable option to contain runs. In each of his last seven series, Harbhajan's economy rate has been less than five runs per over, mostly hovering at around four and a half. In an attack that doesn't have too many wicket-takers, though, that hasn't usually been enough, and opposition batsmen have been able to see him off without taking too many chances, and then attack the others.
|Period||Matches||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||Econ rate||4/ 5WI|
|Till Dec 2004||93||117||29.11||42.4||4.11||2/ 1|
|Jan 2005 onwards||136||142||36.92||49.9||4.43||0/ 2|
As a Test bowler Harbhajan has always preferred bowling in India, but the flat pitches at home haven't been such an incentive in ODIs: over his entire career Harbhajan averages 35.49 at an economy rate of 4.41 at home, and 32 at an economy rate of 4.22 in overseas or in neutral territory. Since 2005 the stats have even-ed up a bit - 36.38 at home with an economy rate of 4.34; and at overseas or neutral venues an average of 37.47 at 4.52 runs per over - but both the home and away averages have gone up during this period over his career numbers.
While it's true that Harbhajan's wicket-taking ability in ODIs has diminished considerably, it's also perhaps true that a part of the reason for that is the quality of the rest of the bowling attack. In a format that limits the number of overs for bowlers to no more than 10, opposition batsmen have worked out that given the weakness and inconsistency of the rest of the Indian bowlers, it's a good strategy to play out Harbhajan without giving him too many wickets, and then look to attack the other bowlers.
The table below shows that in the 134 ODIs that Harbhajan has played for India since the beginning of 2005, his economy rate is much better than those of the rest of the Indian bowlers - in percentage terms, he is about 15% better. However, his average and strike rate are poorer, with the strike rate being about 25% worse that the other Indian bowlers put together. That's a huge rap for the bowler who has, for the last several years, been the mainstay of the Indian attack.
|ODIs||Wickets||Average||Econ rate||Strike rate||4/5WI|
|Harbhajan Singh||134||138||37.26||4.42||50.5||0/ 2|
|Other bowlers||134||743||32.59||5.20||37.62||20/ 7|
Not surprisingly, Harbhajan's bowling average is the poorest among Indian bowlers who've taken at least 50 ODI wickets since the beginning of 2005. Even Yuvraj Singh has done better, averaging 36.38 for his 80 wickets. Also, there are no other spinners in this list, which indicates how reliant India have been on Harbhajan.
In terms of economy rate, though, Harbhajan has been the best by far. He concedes 4.42 runs per over, while no other bowler has a rate of less than 4.90: Munaf Patel comes in next at 4.95.
|Bowler||Matches||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||Econ rate||4/ 5WI|
|Harbhajan Singh||134||138||37.26||50.5||4.42||0/ 2|
|Zaheer Khan||96||128||32.19||38.7||4.99||1/ 1|
|Irfan Pathan||79||105||31.49||35.2||5.35||3/ 1|
|Ashish Nehra||62||92||29.86||31.4||5.69||4/ 1|
|Munaf Patel||70||86||30.26||36.6||4.95||3/ 0|
|Ajit Agarkar||57||85||27.85||33.3||5.01||2/ 1|
|Yuvraj Singh||160||80||36.38||43.1||5.05||1/ 1|
The teams against which Harbhajan has struggled the most during this period are Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa - two of those four teams don't carry a reputation of playing spin very well. (Click here for more details.) Against each of those teams he averages more than 40, and against all four of them together, he concedes very nearly 50 runs per wicket - not flattering for a bowler who used to be regarded as the best spinner going around till not very long ago.
|Bowler||Matches||Wickets||Average||Econ rate||Strike rate|
So how does Harbhajan compare with other top spinners in the world over the last six years? Here's how: there are 21 slow bowlers who've bowled at least 400 overs during this period (since January 2005), and among them Harbhajan is 14th in terms of average. Among the bowlers who've done better than him are Graeme Swann (average 23.56, economy rate 4.43), Saeed Ajmal (26.87, 4.21), Daniel Vettori (28.89, 3.96) and Shahid Afridi (32, 4.59).
Most often in ODIs, the main role of a spinner is to control the middle overs and take wickets consistently during that period, so that opposition batsmen don't have the luxury of plenty of wickets in hand during the slog overs. A comparison of the top spinners in the middle overs in ODIs yet again reveals Harbhajan's inability to take wickets: while Ajantha Mendis, Swann, Ajmal, Vettori and Afridi all average in the 20s or early 30s, Harbhajan averages 40.64, with a strike rate of a wicket every 58 balls.
|Bowler||Balls||Wickets||Average||Econ rate||Strike rate|
|Shakib Al Hasan||3946||77||35.64||4.17||51.25|
With Harbhajan enjoying an almost permanent spot in the Indian team over the last few years, not too many other spinners have had a long run in the side. In fact, no specialist spinner other than Harbhajan has played more than 30 ODIs for India since the beginning of 2005. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have been the most impressive among the Indian slow bowlers, but while Ashwin will be India's lead spinner against West Indies, Ojha has been almost forgotten despite taking 3 for 36 in 9.1 overs against Sri Lanka in his last ODI performance for India. His next opportunity will hopefully come sooner rather than later.