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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Haven't been able to get Harbhajan Singh's latest performance out of my mind. Yes, a good win for a new-look Indian side on a tricky surface, which that legend Rahul Dravid handled with customary determination. But watching Harbhajan return match figures of 3 for 105 against a sorry line-up when Devendra Bishoo grabbed 7 for 140 - including dismissing Laxman, Dravid and Dhoni in quick succession -  was tough to digest.

Here was a surface with bounce and turn - the two facets any offspinner will thrive on, and more so Harbhajan - but he failed to deliver. His line was all over the place: too many wide deliveries which the left-handers - and there were five of them in the West Indies side - could leave alone, and then an equal number of deliveries drifting onto the pads off a short length. The batsmen were rarely bothered. When Harbhajan switched to around the stumps, he continued to feed the batsmen on the pads. What offspinner thrives on that line? Coolly, the batsmen tucked runs off Harbhajan to the leg side. Too many to even recall, but there must have been a large percentage of runs scored to the on side.

This isn't a new facet to Harbhajan's bowling. For too long he's done this. Watching Younis Khan reverse-paddle Harbhajan, on 99, in a Test in 2007-08 is the most accurate indication I can recall of how predictable a bowler he can be.

While watching Harbhajan's uninspiring display, I re-read this article by Harsha Bhogle from earlier this month, in which he called on the bowler to look deep inside himself and strive to become the "great" he was born to be. It got me thinking: what is so great about Harbhajan?

Ninety-four Tests, 396 wickets. That's a pretty good career. You don't get close to 400 wickets by being an ordinary bowler. But is Harbhajan destined to be great? Or is he an ordinary bowler who has achieved more than he possibly set out to at the top?

A friend - while informing me that Harbhajan is the fourth most successful wicket-taker in Tests over the last three years - put forth the argument that Harbhajan is a decent bowler who is judged too harshly by those who expect him to be great. All too often Harbhajan is the bowler people go after, citing his inconsistency and negative flat-on-leg-stump lines and lack of drift and turn. How many times have we read certain former India spinners criticize Harbhajan for not having a stellar series, or for "lacking heart", or for failing to put pressure on the batsmen? True, there are many average batsmen who have played Harbhajan with ease, and many instances where the conditions assisted turn and Harbhajan failed to do as well as he should and could have.

So yes, over the last three years, only three bowlers have taken more wickets than Harbhajan; in 28 Tests over that span he has taken 121 wickets at an average of 33.78 and strike rate of 71.50. Not the figures of a "great" bowler by any means. Over the last 12 months, Harbhajan has taken 41 wickets in 11 Tests (average 39.95), with one five-wicket haul, in South Africa.

There is an argument that Harbhajan does better on wickets that are hard and bouncy, and his returns in India's last two overseas (outside Asia) tours, to New Zealand and South Africa, give credence to this. Harbhajan bowled very well in New Zealand in 2009 and, after a poor first Test in South Africa in late 2010, did well in the remaining two fixtures with 13 wickets. After the drawn series in South Africa, Harbhajan admitted he had adopted Graeme Swann's wicket-to-wicket line which yielded 21 wickets in four Tests in 2009-10. So, you need to look at another offspinner to figure out that a wicket-to-wicket line is key to taking wickets? After 13 years of international cricket? It shows a little into Harbhajan's thought process, and its scary.

It is also pertinent to note how Harbhajan's form has waned over the last five years, especially at home. Overall, from 2001 to 2005, over 42 Tests, Harbhajan's strike rate was 59. Since 2006, it has ballooned to 71.40. From 2001 to 2005, he had 17 five-wicket hauls. Since 2006, he has managed just seven. Bowling at home from 2001 to 2005, Harbhajan took 141 wickets in 23 Tests at a highly impressive average of 22.62. In the last five years, at home, he has 96 wickets in 21 Tests at 33.92. That's a jump of over 10 runs per wicket.

When New Zealand toured India in late 2010, Harbhajan publicly lashed out at the lifeless wickets provided in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, but clearly failed to notice how well Daniel Vettori bowled on those same tracks. Bowling to far greater batsmen than Harbhajan did, Vettori varied his pace and flight to compensate for the lack of turn; Harbhajan, by contrast, pushed the ball through flat and quick.

Test cricket's current leading wicket-taker isn't destined to be great, but a Test bowling average of 31.87 surely proves that. The 30-mark is generally taken as the cut-off between great and good/average Test bowlers, and Harbhajan has some work to do to get his figures below that point.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The tacky tiles ache for an identity.
The upholstery screams for comfort.
The neon sign above the entrance flickers for friendship.
The waiters' smiles quiver from claustrophobia.
The upturned glasses on the cold white tables beg to be toasted.
This is so not the breakfast of champions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


40 kilometers. Up and down. From Manali to Patlikuhl and back. On mountain bikes. Through the hills of Himachal Pradesh, breathtaking scenery on either side, the Beas flowing to the right down in the valley below, alpine trees dotting the horizon and offering shelter from the sun, the road curving like a scythe, arms outstretched, wind in the face, music in in the ear. Amazing. Seven of us biked it to Patlikuhl, and two of us decided to do the return leg as well. It was a challenge, but one overcome through determination. Coming back was a lot of uphill, and my legs were aching and burning after the first climb. The two of us kept at it, stopping once for water and then at the halfway mark, for some hot tea at a dhaba. Then it was back on our bikes, legs pumping as we scaled the terrain and managed to stay clear of buses and trucks as the light faded and day made way for night. To reach our destination, the Dragon Lodge in Old Manali, and to slap backs and hug friends and retell the journey was a fine way to cap a fine day.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The rain came down. To my left, three kids laughed and splashed in a puddle of muddy water. To my right, a laborer hauled a wagon of boxes covered by blue tarp, his every muscle creaking as he struggled to lug his load through traffic and heavy rain. In front,  a man on a scooter argued with a taxi driver. The rain came down. So this is monsoon.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

"Yeh hai Bruce Lee ka bhai, Choos Lee."

"Kutte ko billi ka salaam. Meeeeowwww."

If you've heard those two hilarious lines and can't place where you did, chances are you heard someone else use them. If you've seen Peecha Karo and can automatically place the source, well then all I have to say is SALAAM ... minus the meeeeowwww.  

I recently got my hands on a copy of Peecha Karo, Pankaj Parashar's 1986 laugh riot starring Farooq Sheikh, Amjad Khan, Roma Manik, Rajendra Nath, Rajesh Puri, Anupam Kher, Viju Khote and, in a comedic pairing to rival their antics in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Ravi Baswani and Satish Shah as the bumbling secret agents, Hari Giridhara and Giri Haridhara.

This movie is up there with JBDY and Andaz Apna Apna. Surely the climax of AAA would not have been possible without Peecha Karo (go see it, it's on YouTube and available on Flipkart). The film is riddled with subtle (there's a No Smoking sign in a massive haystack in the middle of the road, where Hari Giridhara and Giri Haridhara are hiding out) and not to subtle (the Kuk-du-Ku song) gems, and its OTT style showcases the comedic talents of every member of the cast.

Each character gets ample space to have fun. Amjad is too good in his role as the Brigadier. His subtlety works superbly amid the shenanigans. Note his interactions with Sudhir. Rajesh Puri hams wonderfully as the Brigadier's servant.Viju Khote makes you laugh in each scene, as is repeatedly frightened by talking postboxes, moving bushes and flapping placards. Sheikh is reliable, as always, and really gets to let his - thinning - hair down in songs like 'O Pori Zara Ikkade Aa' and 'Mujhpe Goli Na Chala' as well as in fight sequences with Choos Lee, son of Guth Lee. Javed Khan also has a memorable cameo. Roma as the leading lady of the film is the weakest of the lot, but doesn't get overshadowed. She knows her role has little scope and so goes with the flow.

This is arguably Rajendra Nath's best role. Playing the father to Sheikh's Vijay, he gets to mouth some of the funniest dialogues - "Krishna ne Ramayan mein Arjun se kaha tha, zindagi ek safar hai suhana, yahan kal kya ho kisne jaana" and "Shakespeare ne Menaka se kaha tha ki naach meri bulbul tujhe paisa milega" and his constant attempts to measure a person's body so he can keep his self-titled Kandharam & Sons shop, which sells 'maiyyat ka samaan' alive (no pun intended) will have you in stitches. His exchange with Amjad is howlarious - he responds to the Brigadier saying "Mein Brigadier hoon" with his own, "Main bhi fire brigade walon ko jaanta hoon."

The best of the lot are Baswani and Shah. From the time the film opens with Baswani's Giridhara breaking into a jail to get out Shah's Haridhara, the pair engages you with their wit and slapstick humor. If Baswani's Chhota Chetan gag sets the tone for the buffoonery to follow, Shah's reenactment of Shiva Ka Insaaf's dialogue take it a step further. The madness never stops.

There are too many scenes to recount, and of course I encourage you to go and get a copy of this film. If you like mindless comedies with five people speaking at once, then Peecha Karo is for you.


Monday, June 06, 2011

"What happened to your hands?"

The look on the taxi driver's face was one of concern.


"Your hands. What are those dots on your skin? Some disease?"

"No, not at all. Its common. Many people have it."

"I've never seen it. Looks like something happened."

"No, they're called ... forget it."

How can I explain freckles to him?