A warrior awaited

Harbhajan Singh turned 32 today. Is he relevant to India’s cricketing future?

“Harbhajan Singh is a fighter.”

— MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Jonty Rhodes, Ravi Shastri, Suresh Raina, Davinder Arora and many others.

During the IPL, the running joke was that the BCCI’s cash benefit for ex-players should have been extended to Harbhajan Singh. It’s been nearly a year since he lost his place in the Indian team. Harbhajan had it coming. In the months preceding his ouster, he had let lesser bowlers outshine him. Most notable was Yuvraj Singh, who fronted India’s spin attack at the World Cup beautifully despite the developing symptoms of cancer.

Keen to overlook his failings, Harbhajan’s supporters had been in the thrall of his reputation. It seemed the feisty sardar himself was beginning to buy into his hype. “I know I am good enough, and that's why I have taken 400 wickets,” he had said last year. With his poor performances, his reputation corroded. On the tour of England, he was axed on the pretext of an injury.

In the last 12 months, there’s been no shortage of sympathetic words and support for him. From India's  commentating cheerleaders to his team-mates, from captains to coaches current and past, everyone believes Harbhajan will “fight back”. Sourav Ganguly, who had shaped Harbhajan from a wayward teen in to a champion bowler, stuck his neck out for his protégé by saying he could lead India some day. Big praise.

SO HAVE THERE been traces of a fightback? It’s hard to say so judging by Harbhajan’s bowling in the interim. In IPL 5, Harbhajan bowled in 16 innings and averaged 64 runs for his six wickets. He was wicketless in 12 of those innings and did not bowl in one.

Since his axing, Harbhajan's notable performances have been off the field: on TV shows & beauty pageants. His two top performances – two-fers – were against Pune and Deccan, who had finished ninth and eighth respectively. Eight times he did not bowl his full quota of four overs. He also tended to push himself down the bowling order.

You don’t need to be a genius to see these figures imply a full-blown form crisis and a severe lack of self-belief. With such problems, players do not merit the additional responsibility of captaincy, but Harbhajan led Mumbai Indians to the playoffs. He did much better during the Champions League which Mumbai had won.

EARLIER, IN THREE Ranji Trophy matches, Harbhajan had bowled a total of 75 overs and dismissed two lower-order batsmen: Saurashtra’s Jaidev Unadkat, and Orissa’s Lagnajit Samal. Woeful. His only notable performances in this period were off the field: on reality TV shows and beauty pageants where he shook a leg or sat on the jury.

In the Vijay Hazare Trophy, Harbhajan took seven wickets at 41 apiece. Three of the games he played in the tournament were against Jammu & Kashmir, Services and Himachal Pradesh, hardly the strongest teams in India. The one game he outperformed everybody else was against Maharashtra where he took 3-35 and then made an unbeaten 79 batting at No. 7 for a hard-fought win.

The year hasn’t been all bad for Harbhajan. He’s helped Mumbai Indians win the Champions League. He led India Green well in the Challenger Trophy title clash. In the IPL, he received praise for — and the irony is hard to miss here — controlling the short-tempered Munaf Patel. That’s like the Hulk trying to calm down Ironman.

Harbhajan is 32 now, with possibly a few good years of cricket left in him. On current form, his bowling can hardly ruffle a club side. The latest on him is that he is heading to Essex for some county action.

For too long Harbhajan’s supporters have talked about his fighting spirit. It's time we started seeing it for real. Surely this is not the end for him.

Share your comments and feedback with the author on Twitter