In KR Guruprasad’s delightful book Going Places which profiles India's small-towners turned-superstars, Harbhajan Singh's mentor Devender Arora describes a memorable incident from an Under-16 match — one, which would underline Harbhajan's bowling prowess.
Arora coached the Jalandhar side in an inter-district match in Patiala. Arora noticed something on the good length outside off-stump. It was an ant mound. The ball would misbehave upon landing on this soft, sandy patch.
Arora called Harbhajan and asked him if he could see this spot from the bowling end. Harbhajan could. Arora told him to land the ball on the spot. He could.
The 13-year-old spinner took 15 wickets in that match just by landing the ball on that spot.
"Even at that age," said Arora, "Harbhajan was so accurate that he could land the ball wherever he wanted to. It was a God’s gift. I was very sure from there on that he would be a great bowler."
It's been 18 years since the incident. Harbhajan is 31. He sits on a pretty pile of 400 sticks — a number that may have exceeded even Arora's expectations.
Only 10 men have done better. Most of them had begun contemplating a life away from cricket after this milestone. Not so for Harbhajan.
He has age on his side. But his challenge is to remain relevant to India's plans. In recent times, Harbhajan's penetrative abilities have resembled that of a rubber duck trying to take on the INS Viraat, more so in the World Cup where he played minimal part in India's triumph and was overshadowed by Yuvraj Singh.
His apologists say Harbhajan's defensive skills — chiefly, his leg-stump darts — build pressure and create wickets from the other end. The problem is, India have had to rely on the other end far too much. While he may get away with it in one-day cricket, he won't in Tests.
This stands true even in the Test series in West Indies. He has seven wickets in five outings in the most bowler-friendly conditions he's going to get all year, and against a weak opponent too. Notably, this is a series where bowlers on both sides have improved their standings.
After beating Pakistan in Mohali, MS Dhoni tacitly admitted to carrying an under-performing bowler before adding "as long as we're winning." It's hard to question a captain who wins as frequently as Dhoni does. But then...
The Harbhajan of old was about offense. About starting fires. About changing the status quo. About drama, and making things happen.
He was the firebrand Sikh bent on winning, if not annoying his opponents. The one who'd complain about the quality of his lunch first, worry about being expelled from the NCA next. The sort whose memory evokes crude remarks even from seasoned opponents.
And then, there was the turn, bounce, dip. The countless revs on the ball. The hissing sound the ball made as it spun by. And his ability to land the ball on the spot, day after day. It made the Australians look ridiculous in the summer of 2001. There was the doosra. It even seduced Jacques Kallis into a rare failure. No sir. This bowler, this man, was no status quoist. He was the man you give a Molotov cocktail and let him start a riot. He was all about aggressive change.
Things are quieter now.
There aren't nearly enough revs. His doosra is preserved somewhere in cotton wool. And even on days Harbhajan gets troublesome bounce around off-stump, he settles into his around-the-wicket leg-stump line which rules out an off-spinner's classical dismissals: bowled through the gap, LBW or bat-pad. The exhibitionist now looks clerical.
He now reminds one of a commonplace government employee, holding down a 9-to-5 desk job, clocking his mandatory hours, keeping things quiet, content with whatever little comes his way, not worrying too much about the bottomline or about losing his job. It helps that he has friends in the right places.
Delusions about being an all-rounder are frequently visited, even though he does precious little to fulfill his primary function as a bowler.
Harbhajan often credits Anil Kumble for part of his success. Perhaps he should seek inspiration from what Kumble did after being dropped for the tour of Australia in 2003 because he was deemed ineffective abroad. But after Harbhajan got injured on the tour, Kumble returned. And what did Kumble do?
He bowled with venom, determined to prove his detractors wrong. As a result, 24 wickets fell to him in three games, including 12 in Sydney.
In 32 Tests abroad since that series, Kumble's strike-rate dropped from 93.1 to 58.9 — eight points better than his strike-rate at home in the same period. His 146 wickets in those matches set up some memorable wins. But since that Australia series, Kumble left no doubt about who India's No. 1 spinner was.
So — where does Harbhajan want to go from here? Would his legacy would be of India's finest off-spinner or of the faded prima donna who got in the way of budding talents? A true great, or just a pretender?
It's all in his hands, or rather, his fingers. Truth be told, if he held a magic mirror and asked it "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is India's best off-spinner today?" the mirror would instantly reply "Ravichandran Ashwin".