Harbhajan Singh had it all, a career full of accolades and many controversies. Amid the action-remodelling and disciplinary issues, he was until recently India's most successful off-spinner.
Born in Jalandhar, Punjab, he got a break into international cricket in his early teens. Flaunting boyish looks and budding facial hair, he made his Test debut as a 17-year-old, in 1998. This was also the season he made his Ranji Trophy debut.
His international debut was against Australia in a dead rubber during their 1997-98 tour. Playing as a third spinner then, Harbhajan Singh’s debut was a forgettable occurrence. Destiny, talent and flamboyance led him to the most successful moments of his career against the same opposition.
Harbhajan played only seven of India’s next 19 Tests after his debut and only a handful of ODIs. The holder of 417 wickets in 103 Tests got lost into oblivion soon after. Hit by an inconsistent form, a suspect action and suspension from the NCA on disciplinary grounds.
Discarded from the national team and spiralling down the ranks, Harbhajan did not play a Test for more than 15 months. Sarandeep Singh took over the baton of being India’s primary offspinner, touted to be one for the future.
Then came a classic case of one’s bane becoming someone’s boon. Ahead of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2001, an injury to India’s leading spinner Anil Kumble, provided an opening for the Punjab rookie. Sarandeep appeared all set to replace Kumble. But, India’s captain Sourav Ganguly, adamant on Harbhajan, took the 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 prepared Harbhajan for that series. In the nets, he sketched a box on the pitch, outside a right-hander’s off-stump. He asked Harbhajan to land as many balls as he could inside that. The rest, as they say, is history. The offspinner bamboozled the mighty Aussies and took 32 wickets in the 3-match series. The 2-1 victory ended a 16-Test unbeaten run for the visitors and scripted a series win for India. Thus initiated the journey of one of the best red-ball units that the country has seen.
The fact that India's next best wicket-takers took three wickets apiece, defines the impact of Harbhajan's performance. For a lover of statistics, the ratio 10.7:1 wicket between the highest and the second-highest wicket-taker in a series is the best ever in Test cricket.
As a captain, responsible to rebuild the team, Ganguly had his eye out for aggressive players passionate to represent India. Fitting into the bucket, Harbhajan enjoyed his golden days under his 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 his leadership. During the 2003 World Cup, when the pitches warranted only one spinner in the side, Harbhajan played 10 matches as opposed to Kumble's 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 him.
Slated to be India’s 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 before 2011, with the arrival of T20s, Harbhajan played more white-ball cricket that Tests. The disparity between his home and away numbers in Tests contributing to this – 265 wickets at 28.8 at home vs 152 wickets at 38.9 away.
Post-2011, young spinners like Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja came knocking on the door. Harbhajan made rare international appearances after that. His last in a Test and ODIs being in 2015 and 2016 in T20Is. But he did get a chance to become the 10th player to play 100 Tests for India.
Harbhajan is one of the few players to win the 50-Over World Cup, the T20 World Cup and the Champions Trophy in 2002. A regular in IPL till the 2019 season, he has won four trophies with two teams thus putting him among the more successful IPL players. Harbhajan opted out of the IPL 2020 due to personal reasons and played only three games in the 2021 season with his third franchise Kolkata Knight Riders.
Harbhajan's hop to the popping crease and a rather complicated action had the charm for professionals and wannabees alike to try and replicate. While we will not witness his hop to the popping crease once again, Harbhajan will go down with Erapalli Prasanna and Ashwin as among the best off-spinners India have produced. His legacy would be his exploits against the very best of his time - the Aussies - will and especially against his bunny: Ricky Ponting. Whom he dismissed 10 times in Tests, the most by any bowler against one of the best batsmen of his generation.