From Bangalore in March 1998 to Chennai in February 2013, it’s been a long road for Harbhajan Singh marked by ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, glorious moments and flop shows with controversies never far away. He has always been a fighter, full of aggression though there have been times when this aggressiveness has crossed the limits and landed him in trouble.
Still to last so long, play 100 Tests, be a member of the exclusive 400 wickets club (there are only ten others who are honoured members) and star in numerous victories including shaping arguably the greatest triumph in a series at home are achievements the ultra-competitive sardar can be proud of.
Harbhajan is only the fourth spin bowler to take 400 wickets and the third Indian to scale this particular summit. Now he becomes the tenth Indian to play 100 Tests and at a time like this, one is easily tempted to go overboard in praise, lift the player to a level to which he doesn’t belong. After all this is an emotional moment and when one thinks and feels emotionally and doesn’t analyze logically, then the cricketer who is the man of the moment gets encomiums he may not deserve.
So then let’s think logically for once and examine some cold facts and figures. Harbhajan’s overall average, away average, strike rate and economy rate is the worst of the eleven bowlers to have taken 400 wickets. In a way the sheer volume of wickets has lost some of its old gloss with the proliferation of Test cricket.
Playing in 100 matches is not uncommon and any specialist bowler worth his salt is expected to take around four wickets a Test. No bowler has sent down as many as almost 27,000 deliveries - as Harbhajan has done - to take 400 wickets and it is interesting to note that Anil Kumble, Harbhajan’s partner for so long, is just above the off spinner when it comes to overall average, away average and strike rate.
Where Harbhajan deserves full credit is the manner in which he has overcome obstacles and hurdles. Personal losses, accusations about his actions, being dropped from the team, and controversies about his rather over the board feisty behaviour have been a part of his anything but quiet life but he has displayed the courage and maturity to overcome these and emerge stronger as a bowler and as a person.
Taking all the adversity in his stride, he formed with Kumble the most potent strike force in Indian cricket since the heady days of the famed spin quartet sharing the spotlight with his senior on some days and basking in the glory all by himself on others.
He is aggression personified though truth to tell he has crossed the line a few times as his many appearances before the match referee illustrate. He is also honest in his dealings though a bit outspoken on a few occasions. But then Harbhajan has never been afraid of courting controversy while driving home a point he feels is valid.
The enduring Harbhajan image we will always savour is through his wicket taking deliveries – the ball pitching on a good length, turning viciously, bouncing spitefully only for the hapless batsman to fend it off into the waiting hands of the short leg fielder. It is the staple dismissal for an off spinner and Harbhajan has done it ever so often.
On prodigious talent, sheer bowling skills and intense competitiveness, Harbhajan has been a difficult act to match. He is the only Indian bowler to take over 30 wickets in a three Test series and that is his crowning glory, particularly as it came about in the epic contest against Australia in 2001 but of course this only heads a long list of notable feats.
Against that, the stats confirm that there is a marked difference between his figures at home and away. A mesmeric match winner in this country, he has been strangely ineffective abroad.
So where does Harbhajan rank among the great Indian spinners? His career may not be over but it is pertinent to ask this question at a moment of a great personal achievement. To be candid he would figure way down in the list. Indian cricket has produced some of the finest specialist spin bowlers to have graced the game and in this intensely competitive field, it is no discredit to figure in sixth place.
If one considers Vinoo Mankad as an all rounder, the first outstanding spin bowler was Subash Gupte who has won the highest praise from none other than Gary Sobers. The spin trio of Bishen Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar and EAS Prasanna has to be up there as also Kumble. Harbhajan probably takes his place next on the list.
But of course the one thing going for Harbhajan is that he is still around though his detractors might say he is lucky to be playing given the dip in his form. However if the theory that a spin bowler is at his best in his 30s holds good, then successful times could well lie ahead.
And while the cynics might say that his recall is a retrograde step and that his career is hanging by a slender thread one wouldn’t be surprised if he goes out with a bang and not a whimper. That would be thoroughly in keeping with the Harbhajan image.