The retirement of Harbhajan Singh from all forms of competitive cricket in December 2021 marked the end of the career of a gifted cricketer who caused controversy at every turn of his career. During the early years of the 21st century he was arguably the best spin bowler in the world and although his wicket taking skills reached a plateau thereafter, his versatility supported himself through all formats of the game at the highest level. . level with reasonable success. He was a fixture in the national team and was part of the team that won the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup in 2007 and the ICC World Cup in 2011. Although he lost his place in the national team in 2015, he continued to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL) until he chose to hang up his football boots last month.
Harbhajan started his career during the 1997-98 season when he played for the national team in March 1998 within four months of making his debut for Punjab in the Ranji Trophy. His junior-level performance and the absence of top quality off-spin bowlers were factors that prompted selectors to try this rookie bowler while still in his teens. He did not set Kaveri on fire during his test debut, which took place against Australia in Bangalore. Within a month, he also made his bow in One Day Internationals (ODIs), but a string of underpowered performances saw him lose his place on the side shortly after.
After going through a period of near-obscurity when he was also thrown out of a training program at the National Cricket Academy on charges of indiscipline, Harbhajan made a comeback to the national side in the winter of 2000-2001 with a performance that will be remembered by followers of the game in India forever. Australia, led by Steve Waugh, had landed in India to conquer the “last frontier”. The visitors had peaked after having won the previous 15 competitions at the trot and looked forward to setting a new world record with 17 consecutive Tests triumphs, while also winning the series. And when they won the first Test in Mumbai by a margin of 10 wickets, everyone thought they were on their way to achieving both of their goals.
The Kolkata Test against Australia in February 2001 is known as “Laxman’s Test” because of his 281 run slam in the second innings that helped India make a great turnaround and win this game after falling in the first innings. trailed by 274 runs. Harbhajan also played a vital role in this win, taking 13 wickets (7 for 123 in the first innings and 6 for 73 in the second), including a hat-trick on the first day. In the final Test in Chennai, Harbhajan again played a stellar part, taking 15 wickets for 217 runs (7 for 133 in the first and 8 for 84 in second innings) to finish the series with a total of 32 wickets. Aussie batsmen had no answer to his wiles, and even such accomplished performers as Rickey Ponting and Adam Gilchrist seemed shocked when they looked at him. Australian media nicknamed him “Turbanator” – a tribute to his destructive ability with the ball.
Harbhajan’s career never reached the stratospheric heights this performance promised. The glut of limited overs cricket made him focus more on limiting runs than on ‘buying’ wickets. This resulted in bowling a flatter line without “airing the ball”; the classic barrel that is the hallmark of a top-class off-spinner also disappeared. This made him a less destructive bowler except on useful surfaces and the returns started to thin out too. When Anil Kumble returned to the side after recovering from injury, Harbhajan moved into support spin bowler’s slot.
A finger injury caused Harbhajan to return home during the 2003-04 tour to Australia. He returned to the side the following season and was among the wickets, with most matches played at home. However, the arrival of Greg Chappell as coach and the departure of Sourav Ganguly as captain of the national side in 2005 caused hiccups in Harbhajan’s career. He was the first Indian cricketer to publicly criticize Chappell and his methods, saying the coach “instilled fear and uncertainty”. Though his statement was needed, Harbhajan managed to escape action and soon after released a statement praising Chappell!
Harbhajan was in the midst of one of the biggest controversies in cricket when India toured Australia in 2007-08. In the second Test in Adelaide, Australia filed a formal complaint alleging racial abuse against Andrew Symonds. Relations between the two sides were at a low ebb and this incident even threatened to disrupt the remainder of the tour. Harbhajan vehemently denied the allegations and Indian team management supported him. But Mike Proctor, the match referee, found him guilty and imposed a penalty. India promptly appealed this verdict and was granted a stay, allowing the tour to continue. In the end, the ICC appealed Justice Commissioner John Hansen to quash the match referee’s verdict and acquit Harbhajan.
The controversy continued to haunt Harbhajan even after the conclusion of this episode. During the 2008 Indian Premier League (IPL) matches, he beat fellow India team-mate S Sreesanth after the match between Kings XI Punjab and Mumbai Indians, who lost the latter match led by Harbhajan. The slapping of a national player in full view of television cameras was met with much criticism and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) quickly sprang into action and took action against Harbhajan.
It was not the first time that Harbhajan came into physical contact with Sreesanth. During the 2007 Champions Cup trophy match, he got the fast bowler on his shoulder as he walked to the top of his bowling alley. BCCI had chosen to ignore this incident, despite it being observed across the country. But the “slapgate” was too serious to be swept under the rug and Harbhajan was banned from playing the remaining games of that season from IPL, in addition to a five-game suspension from ODIs.
Harbhajan’s international career took a serious turn when he was injured during the 2011 England tour. He was not selected for the 2011-12 Australia tour and his appearances in international competitions became sporadic after that. He played his last Test in August 2015 and his last appearance in an ODI came two months later, although he continued to play domestic first-class cricket until 2017. Since then, his appearances on the cricket pitch have been limited to playing in IPL where he took 150 wickets in 13 editions.
A total of 417 wickets in Tests and 269 scalps in ODIs makes Harbhajan the second most successful off-spinner to play for India, after Ravichandran Ashwin. He was also able to handle the willow effectively as evidenced by a total of 2,224 runs in Tests with 2 Centuries and 9 Fifties. He was also the first spin bowler from India to effectively adapt to the demands of all versions of cricket. But his tendency to create controversy and lack of receptivity to discipline cast a cloud over his career that could have reached far greater heights given the prodigious talent with which he was blessed.
The Kerala game fans can be forgiven for not having a soft spot for this highly competitive cricketer as he is considered the culprit of Sreesanth and the source of all the troubles the Kochi born pacer found himself in. News reports indicate that the two cricketers then spoke to each other and resolved their differences. But it would be hard for the fans to forgive so easily, because the bad taste created by those incidents isn’t going away anytime soon. The same is the case with cricketers and cricket-loving crowds in Australia as evidenced by the observations in Gilchrist’s autobiography, despite Harbhajan and Symonds sharing the same dugout in IPL.
In retrospect, one has to conclude that Indian cricket would have been better off if Harbhajan Singh’s aggressive instincts had been properly channeled on the cricket pitch and beyond.
(The author is a former international referee and senior bureaucrat)