Harbhajan carved a unique space for himself

The fiery off-spinner, who forged a potent combination with Kumble, formally retires

For a spinner who remained fiery on the field and raucous fun off it, his walk towards the cricketing twilight proved to be a gentle breeze. An era concluded as Harbhajan Singh tweeted and added a YouTube video through which he announced his retirement on Friday.

The sign-off through words high on gratitude effectively signalled the end of a generation in Indian cricket. Over the last few years, chronologically, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and M.S. Dhoni pressed the exit button. The last-named is still displaying his skills in the Indian Premier League (IPL) but for Harbhajan this is his final full stop.

At 41, and having turned out last for India in 2016 in an Asia Cup T20I against the United Arab Emirates at Dhaka, Harbhajan was restricted to his IPL outings, be it for Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings or Kolkata Knight Riders. His retirement was inevitable but he took his time to make a formal announcement.

Remarkable career

Harbhajan had a remarkable career even if his 1998 Test debut was a muted affair against Australia at Bangalore (Bengaluru now). India lost that match and Harbhajan was soon part of the National Cricket Academy’s inaugural batch. There were whispers of disciplinary issues and about his desire to migrate to Canada and drive trucks just to keep the home fires burning at Jalandhar.

Thankfully, the off-spinner struck to cricket and his patience found spectacular rewards when the then captain Sourav Ganguly leant on him during that magical home series against Australia in 2001. Anil Kumble was injured and Harbhajan was pitch-forked into the primary spinner’s slot. He weaved a web, his whirring action leaving the Aussies in a bind, especially Ricky Ponting.

Harbhajan has overcome many hurdles and put many setbacks behind him to rise every time. What inspired me the most about him was his hunger to perform: Sourav Ganguly, BCCI president

Harbhajan bagged 32 wickets, including a hat-trick, in a series remembered for the heroics of V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid at the Eden Gardens. Steve Waugh’s men were humbled and India found a new star. Harbhajan backed his bowling with some handy batting and forged a potent combination with the legendary Kumble at home and, while playing overseas, they competed for the lone spinner’s position.

No smooth ride

It was never a smooth ride for Harbhajan and his tendency to fly off the handle nudged him into dark corners of angst. The 2008 ‘Monkeygate’ crisis involving him and Andrew Symonds in Australia, and the slapping episode with S. Sreesanth during the IPL, cast Harbhajan in poor light. But he soldiered on, embracing a calm head and helmed the spinners after Kumble retired. He also worked on his bowling action that at times drew scrutiny.

With 417 Test wickets, the fourth-highest among Indians, besides 269 scalps in one-dayers and the added yield from T20s, Harbhajan revealed his bowling prowess. He has two Test centuries too under his belt. However, once R. Ashwin emerged, transition kicked in and Harbhajan had to make way. But by then, he was part of India’s title victories in the 2007 ICC World T20 and the 2011 ICC World Cup.

Recently, he turned out as a commentator, acted in a Tamil film and seems open to whatever life can spring upon him. In an off-spin lineage headed by the great E.A.S. Prasanna and now guided by Ashwin, Harbhajan carved his unique space. And as the Aussies would agree, in his prime, he was an incredible bowler.


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