India vs Australia has always been bruising, brilliant showdowns. Particularly, at the start of the new century, the showdowns produced some memorable cricket, and along with every showdown came a fresh wave of controversies.
At the forefront, of course, were a loud-mouthed, boisterous off-spinner and one of the best batsmen of that generation. Harbhajan Singh and Ricky Ponting have always been at loggerheads whenever India has taken on the mighty Australians, and more often than not, the Punjabi spinner has emerged triumphant.
The two gave us (the cricket fans) the bitterest of rivalries at a time when India was slowly establishing itself as one of the top cricketing nations. Here we take a look at their unforgettable battle on and off the cricket pitch.
It all started back in 1998 when India took on Australia in a day/night ODI in Sharjah. Harbhajan, who was only 17 at that time, was playing in what was his fourth ODI match. Ricky Ponting had advanced down the track but ended up completely missing the line of the ball.
Nayan Mongia made no mistake and uprooted the bails. Harbhajan marched down the wicket celebrating the wicket and confronted his adversary, shouting and giving him specific directions back to the pavilion.
Although Mongia rushed in and held the spindly spinner back, the damage had been done. Ponting, for his part, responded by mouthing some not so nice words at the young Indian and a shoulder barge before making his way back to the dressing room.
That marked the beginning of the rivalry that would enthral cricket fans for over a decade. The two have faced each other a total of 47 times – 14 times in Test matches and 33 times in 50-over matches.
#2 Number of times Harbhajan dismissed Ponting
The contest between Ponting and Harbhajan was always, for some strange reason, dominated by the Indian. Be it the artistry and guile of the off-spinner or just a mental block against someone he couldn’t stand, Ponting never managed to get a grip against Harbhajan.
In the 14 Test matches, the two have come across each other, Harbhajan has dismissed Ponting on 10 occasions, including three instances when the latter was dismissed without even troubling the scoreboards. No other bowler has managed to get the better of the former Australian captain so many times.
Especially, in the Border-Gavaskar series in 2001 (a series in which Harbhajan took 32 wickets), Harbhajan dismissed the right-handed batsman five times. Ponting’s highest score in those five innings stood at a meagre 11 and he managed to amass only 17 runs in the entire series!
It is interesting to note that Harbhajan’s 300th Test victim was no other than his favourite, Ricky Ponting. In ODIs, though, the offie managed to take Ponting’s wicket only thrice in 33 encounters.
#3 Runs scored by Ponting against Harbhajan
Going by the number of times Ponting fell prey to Harbhajan's wily bowling it might seem that the Australian was not too comfortable against spinners in general. However, on the contrary, the World Cup-winning captain was quite adept against right-arm spinners.
In fact, against Muttiah Muralitharan, the greatest off-spinner of all time, Ponting averaged an incredible 61.00 in Tests. Ponting’s average against right arm off-spinners in Tests stood at 57.60. His overall average against spin was 55.41. But when it came to Harbhajan – a bowler he wanted to smash into the stands – more often than not, he could barely get bat on the ball.
His Test batting average of 51.85 came down to 22.30 against an Indian side featuring Harbhajan. The Aussie managed only one century in 10 innings that he was dismissed by Harbhajan, and scored 223 runs in total. In ODIs, however, he fared a little better, averaging 35.00 in the matches he was dismissed by Harbhajan.
#4 Memorable encounters
Talking about memorable encounters, Ponting and Harbhajan has had so many. Right from the day-nighter in Sharjah to the infamous monkey-gate Test in Sydney. But the one match that has been etched forever in every cricket lovers mind is Test match at Eden Gardens back in 2001.
Despite Harbhajan’s hat-trick in the first innings (he picked up seven in total), the Australians managed to score a sizeable 445. In reply, the Indians were bundled out for a paltry 171 and were enforced to follow on. Then came the famous partnership between Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
When India declared on the fifth morning, they had a lead of 383 and Australia just had to bat out two and a half sessions. But Harbhajan Singh had other plans. He picked up six in the second innings and helped India to an unbelievable victory.
Also, there was the 2003 World Cup final between the two nations in Johannesburg in which Ponting, who scored 140 not out, absolutely plundered the Indian bowling line-up. Harbhajan conceded 49 runs in his 8 overs and picked up two wickets. India, however, fell way short of the 360-run target as Australia won the title.
After all the years of rivalry, there was, finally, a thawing in the relations. Although they were always at loggerheads during their playing careers, both Harbhajan and Ponting had utmost respect for each other as far as cricket was concerned.
In 2012, Harbhajan heaped praise on his nemesis as he said, "Ponting will be in my top five Test batsmen ever against whom I played. He was the kind of cricketer who could win matches on his own. An outstanding fielder, his body language throughout his career is something we all look up to.
“He brought so much passion and enthusiasm to the field each time he walked in. That earned him command as a leader and a lot of respect for what he has achieved.
"I and Ricky were never friends, but I have a lot of respect for him and for what he has done for cricket."
Speaking about his adversary in 2016, Ponting had admitted he still had nightmares about Harbhajan.
"My arch nemesis when I was playing against India was Harbhajan Singh,” Ponting said. “I still get nightmares about him."