The retirement of Harbhajan Singh from all forms of competitive cricket in December 2021 brought to close the career of a gifted cricketer who courted controversy at every turn of his career. During the first years of the 21st century, he was arguably the best spin bowler in the world and though his wicket-taking abilities hit a plateau after that, he sustained himself by the versatility that saw him play all formats of the game at the highest level with reasonable success. He was a regular in the national side and part of the team that won the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup in 2007 and the ICC World Cup in 2011. Though he lost his place in the national squad in 2015, he continued playing in Indian Premier League (IPL) till he chose to hang up his playing boots last month.
Harbhajan kickstarted his career during the 1997-98 season when he found himself playing for the national side in March 1998 within four months after making his debut for Punjab in Ranji Trophy. His performances at the junior level and the absence of top quality off-spin bowlers were factors that prompted the selectors to try out this rookie bowler, then still in his teens. He did not set Kaveri on fire on his Test debut, which took place against Australia at Bangalore. Within one month, he made his bow in One Day Internationals (ODIs) as well but a string of below-par performances saw him lose his place in the side soon thereafter.
After going through a period of near oblivion when he was also thrown out of a training programme in National Cricket Academy on charges of indiscipline, Harbhajan staged 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 for all times. Australia, led by Steve Waugh, had landed in India to conquer the "final frontier". The visitors were on a high, having won the previous 15 matches on the trot and looked forward to creating a new world record with 17 consecutive triumphs in Tests, while also winning the series. And when they won the first Test at Mumbai by a margin of 10 wickets, everyone thought that they were on their way to attaining both their goals.
The Kolkata Test against Australia in February 2001 is known as "Laxman's Test", for his knock of 281 runs in the second innings which helped India to script a magnificent turnaround and win this game, after trailing in the first innings by 274 runs. Harbhajan also had a crucial role to play in this victory as he took 13 wickets (7 for 123 in first innings and 6 for 73 in the second), including a hat-trick on the first day. In the last Test at Chennai, Harbhajan again played a stellar role, bagging 15 wickets for 217 runs (7 for 133 in first and 8 for 84 in second innings) to finish the series with a tally of 32 wickets. Aussie batsmen did not have any answer for his wiles and even such accomplished performers as Rickey Ponting and Adam Gilchrist appeared shell-shocked while facing him. Australian media nicknamed him as "Turbanator"- a tribute to his destructive capacity with the ball.
Harbhajan's career did not ever attain the stratospheric heights that this performance promised. The surfeit of limited overs' cricket made him focus more on restricting runs than on "buying" wickets. This resulted in bowling a flatter line without "giving the ball air"; the classic loop which is the hallmark of a top-class off-spinner also disappeared. This made him a less destructive bowler except on helpful surfaces and the returns also started growing thinner. When Anil Kumble returned to the side after recovering from an injury, Harbhajan moved into the slot of support spin bowler.
A finger injury caused Harbhajan to return home during the tour to Australia in 2003-04. He returned to the side the next season and was amongst wickets with most of the games being played at home. However, the arrival of Greg Chappell as coach and the exit 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 criticise Chappell and his methods and said that the coach was "instilling fear and insecurity" in the side. Though his explanation was called for, Harbhajan managed to escape action and issued a statement lauding Chappell soon thereafter!
Harbhajan found himself in the midst of one of the biggest controversies in cricket when India toured Australia in 2007-08. In the second Test at Adelaide, Australia lodged a formal complaint that he indulged in racial abuse against Andrew Symonds. The relations between the two sides were at a low ebb and this incident even threatened to disrupt the conduct of the remaining part of the tour. Harbhajan vehemently denied the charges and the Indian team management supported him. But Mike Proctor, the match referee, found him guilty and slapped a punishment. India promptly appealed against this verdict and got a stay, which allowed the tour to go on. Eventually, the ICC appeals Commissioner Justice John Hansen overturned the verdict of the match referee and absolved Harbhajan.
Controversy continued to dog Harbhajan even after the closure of this episode. During the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches in 2008, he slapped fellow India teammate S Sreesanth after the game between Kings XI Punjab and Mumbai Indians, which the latter side, led by Harbhajan, lost. The slapping of a national player in full view of television cameras drew widespread criticism and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) moved fast and initiated action against Harbhajan.
Incidentally, this was not the first time that Harbhajan had got physical with Sreesanth. During the Champions Cup trophy match in 2007, he had shoulder charged the fast bowler when he was walking to the top of his bowling mark. BCCI had chosen to ignore this incident despite it being witnessed across the country. But the "slapgate" was too serious to be brushed under the carpet and Harbhajan was barred from playing the remaining matches of that season of IPL, besides a five-match suspension from ODI's.
Harbhajan's international career took a severe reverse when he was injured during the tour to England in 2011. He was not selected for the tour to Australia in 2011-12 and his appearances in international matches became sporadic after that. He played his last Test in August 2015 and his final appearance in an ODI took place two months later, though he continued to play domestic first-class cricket till 2017. Since then, his appearances on the cricket field were limited to playing in IPL, where he picked up 150 wickets in 13 editions.
A tally of 417 wickets in Tests and 269 scalps in ODI's makes Harbhajan the second most successful off-spinner to play for India, after Ravichandran Ashwin. He could also wield the willow effectively as evident from a total of 2,224 runs in Tests with 2 centuries and 9 fifties. He was also the first spin bowler from India to adjust to the demands of all versions of cricket effectively. But his tendency to create controversies and lack of amenability to discipline cast a cloud over his career which could have reached much greater heights given the prodigious talent he was blessed with.
Followers of the game from Kerala could be forgiven for not harbouring a soft spot towards this highly competitive cricketer as he is considered to be the bugbear of Sreesanth and the source of all troubles that the Kochi born pacer found himself in. News reports indicate that the two cricketers subsequently spoke to each other and resolved their differences. But it would be difficult for the fans to forgive so easily as the bad taste created by those incidents does not vanish quickly. The same is the case with cricketers and cricket-loving public of Australia, as could be understood from the observations in the autobiography of Gilchrist, despite Harbhajan and Symonds sharing the same dugout in IPL.
In retrospect, one is forced to conclude that it would have been better for Indian cricket if the aggressive instincts of Harbhajan Singh were channelled properly on the cricket field and outside.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)