A Tale of Two Bowlers

On October 8, 2004 at Bangalore, when Anil Kumble took his 400th Test wicket dismissing Simon Katich caught off Rahul Dravid, there were muted celebrations. Australia had a lead of over 200 runs and the local boys – Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid – knew that records could be celebrated another day and not at the Chinnaswamy Stadium that day.

On July 7, 2011 at Dominica, when Harbhajan Singh took his 400th Test wicket getting Carlton Baugh bowled, India were in a very good position. West Indies were 200 for 8 and trailing the series by a Test and the celebrations were in high decibel. The celebrations and the careers of Kumble and Harbhjan have had stark contrasts. It is interesting to take a glimpse at the careers of two of our greatest spinners.

By the time Kumble had taken his 400th Test wicket in his 85th Test, he had a bowling average of 28.4, an economy of 2.53, strike rate of 67.2 with 24 five wicket hauls. Harbhajan Singh took his 400th Test wicket in his 96th Test match. He has a bowling average of 31.67, an economy of 2.81, strike rate of 67.4 with 25 five wicket hauls.

In the bowling average front Harbhajan needs to benchmark himself to Shane Warne (25) and Muralitharan (23) if he is looking to end his career among the greats. Anil Kumble, with 619 wickets and third in the overall list, has perched himself among the leading wicket-takers of all time. Who is the greater bowler among the two? Who has been a bigger match winner for India?

Anil Kumble has won ten Man-of-the-match awards while Harbhajan Singh has won six. Anil Kumble’s 10 for 74 cannot be pitched against Harbhajan’s epic 8 for 84 in Chennai. When two different oppositions, conditions and spells are held under the same microscope it’s difficult to pick a winner.

If the barometer shifts to contributions from the bat there is still little to choose from. Anil Kumble scored 2506 runs at an average of 17.77 with his famous century at the Oval in 2007. Harbhajan Singh has already scored 2106 runs at an average of 18.80 with his back-to-back centuries against New Zealand in 2010 being the highlight.

Kumble started his Test career with Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar, Narendra Hirwani and Ravi Shastri at Old Trafford in August 1990. Harbhajan started his with Harvinder Singh, Venkatapathy Raju, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly at Bangalore in 1998. Almost two different eras. The early ‘90s heralded the end of the Kapil Dev era and emergence of Javagal Srinath as the spearhead.

In the early 2000’s the arrival of Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra changed the landscape. There was a stark contrast from the Mohammed Azharuddin era to the Sourav Ganguly era. India starting winning away from home and India’s bowling attack started changing from a spin friendly attack to a pace attack. The lasting memory one would have of ‘Jumbo’ bowling with a fractured jaw in pain at Antigua and Harbhajan’s annihilating the Aussies in 2001 in Chennai.

With all these dynamics and evolution in mind, the question still begs to be answered: who is a better bowler? Will Harbhajan Singh go past Anil Kumble’s 619 wickets? Is Harbhajan’s doosra more potent than Anil’s straight one? Is Anil’s leadership and statesmanship – the ultimate role model for youngsters – or Harbhajan’s fearless approach and intimidation of the opposition the new mantra? What is your take on the spin doctors?