A 17-year-old offspinner from Punjab with boyish looks and budding facial hair earned his Test cap against Australia in a dead rubber during their 1997-98 tour. Playing as a third spinner then, Harbhajan Singh’s debut was an easily forgettable occurrence. A marriage of destiny, talent and a flamboyant personality though later led him to taste the most successful moments of his career against the same opposition.
The most successful off-spinner for India (417 wickets in 103 Tests) was lost into oblivion soon after his debut. Marred by inconsistent form, a suspect action that required modification after ICC’s intervention and suspension from the NCA on disciplinary grounds, Harbhajan played only seven of India’s next 19 Tests after his debut and only a handful of ODIs.
Discarded from the national team and rapidly going down the ranks, Harbhajan did not play a Test for more than 15 months. Sarandeep Singh had taken over the baton of being India’s primary offspinner and was touted to be one for the future.
In a classic case of one’s bane becoming someone’s boon, an injury to India’s leading spinner Anil Kumble ahead of a high-profile series against Australia in 2001 provided a narrow opening to the Punjab rookie. While Sarandeep appeared all set to replace Kumble, India’s then captain Sourav Ganguly, adamant on Harbhajan’s talent, took the then Indian coach, John Wright, to observe the youngster’s turn and bounce in the nets. Impressed by what he saw, Wright agreed to his inclusion and took him under his wing.
In his book, The India Summer, Wright explained how he sketched a box just outside a right-hander’s off-stump on the pitch in the nets and asked Harbhajan to land as many balls as he could inside that. The rest, as they say, is history. The offspinner bamboozled the mighty Australians and took 32 wickets in the 3-match series that ended a 16-Test unbeaten run for the visitors and scripted a series win for India that marked the inception of one of the best red-ball units that the country has seen. The fact that the next best wicket-takers for India in a 2-1 victory were Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar, with 3 wickets apiece, defines the impact of his performance. For a lover of statistics, this ratio 10.7:1 wicket between the highest and the second-highest wicket-taker in a series is the best ever in the history of Test cricket.
As a captain holding the responsibility of rebuilding the team after a slump, Ganguly had his eye out for aggressive players passionate to represent their country. Fitting into the bucket perfectly, Harbhajan enjoyed his golden days under Ganguly’s leadership.
Backing his attacking bowler, Ganguly preferred Harbhajan as India’s leading spinner during his regime. The offie played 9% more Tests and 11% more ODIs than Kumble under Ganguly’s leadership. Even during the 2003 World Cup, when the pitches warranted just one spinner in the side at most, Harbhajan played 10 matches as opposed to Kumble who played only three.
Harbhajan’s two other best Test series also came during Ganguly’s era - the home series against Australia in 2004-05 (21 wickets at an average of 24) and against West Indies in 2002-03 (20 wickets at 16.8). Like Tests, most of his successful ODI series’ too were under Ganguly.
Slated to be India’s lone frontline spinner after Kumble’s retirement, Harbhajan lost his place in the side after the 2011 World Cup while he was still in his early 30s. Even for some years prior to this, with the emergence of T20 cricket, Harbhajan was largely reduced to a white-ball player for India. The disparity between his home and away numbers in Tests contributing towards this – 265 wickets at 28.8 at home vs 152 wickets at 38.9 away.
With the advent of young spinners like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, Harbhajan appeared for India sporadically – last being in 2015 in Tests, ODIs and 2016 in T20Is. But he did get a chance to become the 10th player to play 100 Tests for India.
One of the few players to win the 50-Over World Cup in 2011, the T20 World Cup in 2007 and the Champions Trophy in 2002, Harbhajan has not yet officially announced his retirement from international cricket. A regular in IPL, he has won four trophies with two teams thus putting him in the league of the most successful IPL players.
While it is unlikely that we will witness his hop to the popping crease once again in India colours, but his exploits against the best Aussie batsmen are etched in memory. Especially against his bunny – Ricky Ponting – whom he dismissed 10 times in Tests, the most against by any bowler for one of the best batsman of his generation.