Harbhajan Singh, the Last of the Golden Generation Bids Adieu
Harbhajan Singh had an illustrious 23-year long career.
So, thus ends the last possible link to the era of the 1990s in Indian cricket.
It is indeed unique that a cricketer’s career should span four different decades and that too four completely different eras. Only someone like Harbhajan Singh could have managed that.
But his career should have ended on a higher note than on a whimper like it did on the eve of Christmas of 2021. Harbhajan deserved a better send-off than the one he got through a simple message on social media.
For someone who started his Test career when he was not yet a man, Harbhajan captured the imagination of an entire generation with his approach. When he came to the fore, the world was still enamoured by Saqlain Mushtaq’s tryst with doosra and such other magical deliveries. India at the receiving end on a few occasions, were looking for a similar bowler. At that time India had experimented with going back to Rajesh Chauhan and had even thrown Noel ‘Who’ David at the deep end.
When Punjab’s veteran Navjot Singh Sidhu first spotted Harbhajan, he immediately took a liking to the young man. The legend goes that Mumbai had travelled to Punjab to play a Ranji game in the 1997-98 season, the entire visiting team were head over heels for this teenage cricketer. The story goes that Mumbai coach Balwinder Sandhu even asked Harbhajan to move base to Mumbai. But he did not.
Remember that was an era when Mumbai was still at the tail end of a dominant phase in Indian domestic cricket. So any such approach from a champion side is always spoken about highly by peers and admirers.
In fact right through the 1997-98 season there were murmurs about Harbhajan making it to the Indian squad, leapfrogging over rivals at the time. But when the turn finally came, Harbhajan never looked back with a stormy debut in the 1998 Bangalore Test against visiting Australia. He was then all set for a career full of highs, massive lows, and a lot of drama. His bowling action became a subject of speculation as he travelled to the United Kingdom for corrective action, not for the first time!
It started with his very first ODI tourney in Sharjah when he gave a royal send-off to Ricky Ponting and got pulled up officially by the match-referee. Then he had a bit of a low phase as he was majorly used for Test cricket and Nikhil Chopra did the ODI duties. There came a time when Harbhajan even lost his Test place.
But the new captain Sourav Ganguly had immense belief in Harbhajan and plumped for him for the home series against the rampant Australians at home in 2000-01. Things were never the same! He took a hat-trick, was the only consistent bowler in the series and ended with 32 scalps even as the other bowlers around him changed.
Though Harbhajan’s battles with former Australia captain Ponting started with the Sharjah send-off in 1998, the 2001 battles were epic. Harbhajan seemed to have a wood over Ponting right through the historic series and the Indian offie’s conquest of a champion batter underlined his quality.
India’s rise as a cricketing nation from the ashes of the match-fixing scandal coincided with Harbhajan’s rise as a world-class bowler. India started winning abroad in Test cricket thanks mainly to the performances of Harbhajan in addition to the new crop of champions including Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, and the others. Harbhajan’s form with the ball resulted in playing a part in India winning a Test in Zimbabwe and Trinidad.
The best part was the fact that Harbhajan’s association with another legend Anil Kumble proved to be fruitful in this phase.
Kumble had been away in Harbhajan’s iconic 32 wicket series against Australia. But when Kumble returned from his shoulder surgery, Harbhajan formed a terrific combination with him.
The best example of that came in 2002 in England when on a green top in cloudy conditions both Kumble and Harbhajan spun out the home team. The series levelling Test win showed the quality of Harbhajan, and of course once again showed just why Kumble was a living legend. To bowl out the home team against the odds in typical conditions showed Harbhajan’s quality.
The Indian think-tank usually had a tough time trying to pick between Kumble and Harbhajan on overseas Tests, especially those in SENA countries. Till Harbhajan arrived with a big bang, Kumble was the lone warrior with the ball in the spin department away from home. But Harbhajan’s arrival coincided with Kumble being challenged for the lone spinner’s slot.
It felt like nothing could go wrong for Harbhajan.
The arrival of Greg Chappell as India head coach started a phase that must have once again given rise to self-doubts within Harbhajan. Chappell earmarked Harbhajan alongside Ganguly, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Ashish Nehra, and a couple of others. That particular phase was really dramatic with Harbhajan being at times the lone wolf battling a ‘system’, with others out of the side or not in favour. He fought brilliantly, especially with a key spell in a match-winning effort at Jamaica in 2006, which helped India win a Test series in West Indies for the first time since 1971.
Harbhajan was out of favour in early 2007 but returned with triumph in the 2007 T20 World Cup campaign. His spells in the tournament during crucial phases, especially against Australia in the semi-final helped play a part in India progressing ahead in the tournament.
With Kumble’s retirement, Harbhajan moved into the senior spinner’s role quite effortlessly. The long partnership with Kumble was fruitful and effective for India, but then being the lone man standing put immense pressure on Harbhajan.
During this phase under new head coach Gary Kirsten, Harbhajan rose further in stature. He started contributing with the bat as well. He batted well at crucial times in both Tests and ODIs.
His Test hundreds against New Zealand in 2010-11 showed a different facet of his career. Earlier in 2010 it was his batting that played a part in a tense win over arch rivals over Pakistan in the Asia Cup. Harbhajan got into a scrap with his good friend Shoaib Akhtar during the match, but that was just his quality.
The year 2010 proved to be quite eventful as Harbhajan also played a part in a terrific triumph over South Africa at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens in a tense finish, which helped India retain the number one ranking in Test cricket. Later in 2010 in South Africa he once again underlined his ability with the ball as he bowled a magical spell.
The crowning glory obviously was the 2011 World Cup win when he cried copiously as India lifted the trophy at home after 28 years. He bowled crucial spells at critical times for India as the side moved effortlessly into the final and lifted the title.
After the World Cup win, he played another part in West Indies at a crucial time in a Test match, again with the bat, but then tapered off slowly but surely.
He got injured on the England tour that followed in 2011 and then very slowly he lost first his limited-overs spot. Then Ravichandran Ashwin emerged to end his Test career.
He did return a year later when England came on a tour, but he had lost his prime position by then to Ashwin. He went out of favour for a while again, returning only in Tests majorly under new captain Virat Kohli. Much like the other members of the 2011 campaign, Harbhajan never got a chance to defend the title in 2015. His Test comeback in 2015 never quite conjured up the old magic. He made a brief return to the ODI set-up, but was then benched for good.
He made one final return to the T20 side making it to three successive series in Australia, Asia Cup, and then the T20 World Cup. He should probably have played the 2016 T20 World Cup semi-final against the marauding West Indies, where his experience could have proved handy.
Then Harbhajan was dropped forever, never to return to the national team. He continued to ply his trade in the IPL for various teams. In fact a couple of seasons ago he once again showed some old magic for Chennai Super Kings, but it was all too brief.
When he was finally not played this year by his new team, Kolkata Knight Riders, everyone knew it was all over for Harbhajan.
The Christmas eve announcement was only a formality because for the last five years he had moved into new vistas: commentary, expert analysis, hosting game shows, and of course acting (in Tamil movies).
Maybe Harbhajan’s retirement came a tad too late, but he always lived in hope and never felt the need to apply formal closure.
As a member of India’s golden generation, Harbhajan gave us many fond memories. After 23 years, it is only fair that we remember him for the highs. Truly, Bhajju Pa, thoda jawab nahin!
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