Of course, the conventional wisdom does suggest that two great players from two different generations can’t be compared while evaluating the degree of greatness and yet it is not unfashionable either to do so, especially when it has similar kind of two spinners whose careers have overlapped with each other. Welcome to the world of Ravichandran Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh.
Strictly in statistical terms, Harbhajan stands nowhere close to the genius of Ashwin. The difference between the two players reaching 417 Test wickets is a massive 23 matches. The current chairman of the selection committee, Chetan Sharma’s Test career lasted for just as many matches. The legspinner Amit Mishra, who has been a contemporary of both Ashwin and Harbhajan, has played just 22 matches for India, and it just shows that very few have truly acknowledged what Ashwin has accomplished in his career.
In a world, where every Ajit Agarkar and a Hardik Pandya is often seen as the next Kapil Dev, the Chennai-born Ashwin rarely gets any credit for his five Test hundreds either like his bowling achievements. Just come to think of it, Yuvraj Singh, Sanjay Manjrekar, Vinod Kambli and Sandeep Patil have scored fewer tons in Test cricket than Ashwin!
Despite being the greatest match-winner of his generation, the 34-year-old is often side-lined by his regular captain Virat Kohli as was the case with Anil Kumble who eventually finished with 618 Test wickets despite many hurdles.
In the last Test series in England, Ashwin was bafflingly not part of India’s playing XI in a single match despite the fact that over the last couple of years, his game has improved tremendously with 43 wickets in last 12 Tests abroad (18 of them in Australia in four matches, 15 in England in five matches and 7 from two matches in South Africa) and yet his captain was not convinced of his ability.
The greatest advantage Harbhajan had in his career was the unflinching backing for most part in the form of his beloved captain Sourav Ganguly. So much so that, many a times a legend like Kumble had to make way for Bhajji and few eyebrows were raised.
However, with Ashwin the reverse is true. His inexplicable exclusions from the playing XIs in overseas Tests has always been a point of contention. Whenever there is the slightest of pressure on team selection, Ashwin has often been a proverbial sacrificial lamb. In an ideal world, your best players are automatically guaranteed a place (especially if you are a batter), but with Ashwin the opposite has unfortunately has become the norm.
Strangely, for a cricketer who has been so extraordinarily successful, Ashwin hardly gets the universal applause, even in his own country. Some of the commentators like Sanjay Manjrekar in past have gone on record saying that there is hesitation in calling Ashwin an all-time-great because of his supposedly inferior record in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries.
For record and statistical comparison of bowling records in outside India matches reveal an interesting tale. In 48 overseas Tests, Harbhajan has managed 152 wickets at an average of 38.90 and at a strike-rate of 76.2 while Ashwin has got 123 scalps in just 31 matches abroad at an average of 31.18 with a strike rate of 63.7. When Ashwin was ignored for the fourth consecutive times on the tour of England earlier this year, former England captain Nasser Hussain while doing commentary for Sky Sports was forced to say that the decision to leave out the spinner was Virat Kohli’s ‘stubbornness’.
How many commentators can challenge Kohli the great publicly? Former Australian spinner Shane Warne too had nodded in agreement with Hussain and yet none has probed either Kohli or former coach Ravi Shastri for treating one of the champion bowlers of all-time so badly. Remember what happened to Greg Chappell when he just made Bhajji’s life a little uncomfortable by asking him to get out of his comfort zone in 2005-2007.
Only seven bowlers have crossed the 500 Test wickets millstone and three of them have been spinners who are undoubtedly among the greatest of all-times in Muttiah Muralitharan, Warne and Kumble. Getting past the legendary Kapil Dev now looks a mere formality but for Ashwin the real challenge is to reach the 500 mark which may settle the debate between him and the Turbanator, forever.