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By Partab Ramchand
He’s been around for so long that it is difficult to believe that Harbhajan Singh celebrated only his 30th birthday on July 3. Not yet 18 when he made his Test debut against Australia at Bangalore in March 1998 he has been around for a dozen years and over the first decade of the new millennium he along with Anil Kumble formed the most successful spin attack in the contemporary game. And in the last couple of years since the senior man’s retirement Harbhajan has continued as the kingpin and in his own way has been an inspiration to a new generation of spin bowlers.
There was always some concern as to how the temperamental sardar would perform on his own. After all he and Kumble complimented each other admirably with one happily egging the other on. Kumble openly welcomed a bowler like Harbhajan in the new millennium as for most of the 90s he had to virtually attack on his own with limited support. The two were the most effective spin bowling combination in the cricketing world since the heady days of the Indian spin quartet in the sixties and seventies.
It is always difficult to accept that a long time bowling partner will no longer be around and as a result it was thought that Harbhajan’s bowling would suffer. But the ultra competitive Harbhajan has lived up to his responsibilities as the spin spearhead. It’s not exactly a new role for he handled the role with aplomb during the time Kumble was out of the side through injury or whenever the team management decided to field only one spinner which was sometimes the case particularly when playing abroad.
Indeed Harbhajan’s greatest triumph came about in 2001 when Kumble was nursing an injury. Even if he is around for another decade it is difficult to see him topping the dream feat he achieved against Steve Waugh’s all conquering Australian side. Not only did he take 32 wickets in the three matches – including becoming the first Indian to take a hat trick in Tests - but he also helped turn the tide as India from 0-1 down went on to register a memorable 2-1 triumph in arguably the most thrilling Test series in this country.
And to think that Harbhajan very nearly did not make that Test side! The selectors almost plumped for Sarandeep Singh before skipper Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright were instrumental in opting for Harbhajan. In a way Harbhajan played a major role in reviving the falling standards of Indian spin bowling. I well remember the scenario in early 2001. Kumble was out through injury and those who had bowled alongside him in the nineties like Venkatpathi Raju, Narendra Hirwani and Rajesh Chauhan were past their best. The newer bowlers like Sunil Joshi, Rahul Sanghvi, Sairaj Bahutule, Nilesh Kulkarni and Sarandeep were clearly not up to the mark. In desperation the selectors called up nine spinners for the camp prior to the series against Australia. None seemed to impress and the downbeat mood turned gloomier. With an inadequate spin attack it would be impossible to take on the Australians on level terms. Moreover spin bowling was Indian cricket’s traditional strength and one found it hard to come to terms with the fact that there was a steep decline.
And then Harbhajan came up with his magical performance and it was clear that India had unearthed a world class bowler, one who would help maintain Indian supremacy in the art of giving the ball a healthy tweak and one who with Kumble would form a spin duo to match the best in the game. That’s how it has been during the decade with Harbhajan being one of the few to live up to his early promise. It is a tribute to his durability that he has remained for so many years a dangerous bowler capable of running through sides on almost any surface.
With a bag of 355 wickets from 83 Tests Harbhajan is third on the list of all time Indian wicket takers behind Kumble and Kapil Dev. The more cynical followers of the game will shake their heads at an average of almost 31 as well as his declining strike rate in ODIs. The fact however is that he remains the country’s No 1 bowler in all three formats of the game, his aggression and experience making him quite irreplaceable. The good thing from the Indian viewpoint is that the end is nowhere in sight and with age on his side the unadulterated bowling skills of Harbhajan Singh could well be admired till almost the end of the second decade of the new millennium. And if the theory that a spin bowler is at his best in his 30s holds good then great times are ahead for the Indian team.