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Harbhajan Singh turns back the clock

ESPNcricinfo logo ESPNcricinfo 24-03-2019 Varun Shetty
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Harbhajan Singh was one of the members of the "Daddy's Army", that infamous group of supposed cautionary tales that Chennai Super Kings picked in the 2018 auction. In the immediate aftermath of the auction, he was the one who had looked the most prudent buy.

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His IPL career till then had been, by all measures, a proper success. Among spinners in IPL Powerplays, only R Ashwin (32) had taken more wickets than his 19. His economy rate in that phase was a miserly 6.64. Those numbers were worth even more considering some of his best years had come when mystery spinners had begun dominating the early phases of T20 innings.

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So it was clear what Super Kings had bought him for. MS Dhoni likes having an offspinner in the Powerplays, whether he bowls mystery deliveries or not. With Ashwin, he'd tangled up many line-ups at the start, and he did it briefly with Washington Sundar at Rising Pune Supergiant as well. With many of years of success as a defensive bowler for Mumbai Indians with the new ball, Harbhajan would slot into that role seamlessly.

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It didn't quite work out. Harbhajan had his worst IPL season last year - seven wickets in 12 games and an economy rate of 8.48. He's had one season before where he took fewer wickets than that, in 2012, when he only bagged six in 16 matches. But he bowled his overs at an economy rate of 7.11. Even in 2017, he took eight wickets and went at 6.48.

It's been a strange last few years for Harbhajan. He doesn't play a lot of domestic cricket, and has been called out for picking and choosing his matches for Punjab. The general trend there has been for his appearances to grow more frequent in the months before the IPL, which is when the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy is played. This year, he played only three of those matches and took no wickets.

Those were his only matches since being dropped before last year's final, an event that was preceded by three more wicketless matches and a DNB.

Super Kings made a gamble with on him on Saturday: starting a man with no wickets in his last seven matches, and hadn't played any cricket for nine months until February.

But there was perhaps no better venue at which to take a gamble on him. His penchant for turning things around here aside, there was enough in the pitch to suit exactly the kind of skills Harbhajan relies on.

One of Harbhajan's biggest strengths is his ability to drift the ball with both floaty and flat trajectories. This allows him to hit the same lines and lengths but still be difficult to predict. With a primarily slow pace today and marginal drift from a very straight line, he had Virat Kohli hitting exactly where he wanted - in the direction of midwicket. While he was prepared to be fuller to Parthiv Patel, there was almost never any width.

It was a simple enough plan, and when the runs weren't coming from either end, Royal Challengers had to take a chance. When there's an offspinner on from one end, right-hand batsmen rarely think long about whom to take on.

The line and length didn't change, but the trajectory did. Harbhajan went slightly flatter, got slightly more dip, and some love from the surface as the ball gripped; just enough to get Kohli on the back foot on a slow pitch, but also cramp him on the pull.

After many initial signs of how slow the pitch was, there was concrete evidence that hitting would not be easy. But Royal Challengers continued to play into his hands, first when they sent Moeen Ali in at No. 3 to make it two left-handers, and second with Moeen being overly aggressive. And while he hit the only six of the innings, he wasn't going to last too long playing with hard hands. Not against Harbhajan. Again, the batsman had been worked out. He kept the flight up, but got one to dip and land just short of the length from which he'd been swept for six. Moeen's decision to drive from there cost him. But an attempted sweep might have as well, as AB de Villiers found out when he was dropped one ball before his dismissal.

It was that kind of a spell, just classic Harbhajan - you didn't know where to hit him. He doesn't bowl a topspinner too often these days, and the doosra is a relic. It's old-timer stuff that Harbhajan relies on now - length, loop, angle from the crease. These were the things he wasn't quite nailing last year, so much so that he was entirely dispatched from bowling in the Powerplays in most matches. He got a Powerplay spell in only five out of 12 games last year, and he went at 10.85.

But with the old tricks showing up again, and the old home ground that will help him out at least six more times if he can help it, Harbhajan might finally be back where he belongs - in the Powerplay, winning matches early.

Photos: How the big-ticket buys performed in IPL 11


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