As India took the field on Day 1 of the Chennai Test, Harbhajan Singh achieved another milestone by becoming the tenth Indian player to have played100 Test matches for India. And if you think he has been included in the side because he is a fighter (not literally), you could be wrong. His past achievements against the Aussies could’ve tempted the selectors into giving him another go. But to outdo the Aussies you need a bowler who is equally sharp, unlike Harbhajan, who is struggling to find his momentum.
Harbhajan has played a lot of competitive cricket against the Australians over the years (90 scalps in 16 Tests at an average of 29.35), but ‘Harbhajan vs Australia’ will always be remembered for that 2001 series. It was the series where Harbhajan announced himself on the big stage and also claimed his hat-trick. It was the series where he threatened to pick a wicket off every delivery. It was a series where he single-handedly destroyed the Australians, taking 32 wickets in three Tests at 17.03. Such was his impact that the Aussies nicknamed him — ‘The Turbanator’. But wait a second – we are talking about a series which was played 12 years ago!
He can’t be called back into the squad just because he’d bowled incredibly in a series 12 years back. It’s akin to including Ashish Nehra in every ODI series against England simply because he bowled an excellent spell (6/23) in the 2003 World Cup. Or for that matter, re-calling Ajit Agarkar to play every match at The Lord’s because he once hit a century there. If form is anything to go by, Harbhajan didn’t deserve a place in the team. One has to feel for Pragyan Ojha, who didn’t put a step wrong and was clearly India’s best bowler in the recently-concluded series against England.
But Australia is a different kettle of fish. In the last tour Down Under, India was expected to put up a brave fight, but was routed 4-0. And the competitiveness could be ascertained from the fact that two of India’s most established batsmen — Dravid and Laxman, who had severely troubled the Australians over the years— had to hang their boots post the debacle.
Thus when Harbhajan said ahead of the series, “We will teach Australia how to play cricket,” and predicted a whitewash, one could sense that he’d gone overboard. It would have been really nice to hear from him about what his own contribution would be in the series considering that his own place in the playing 11 was under serious doubt.
Harbhajan is low on confidence and has been involved in controversies off the ground and sudden fame could be one of the reasons for his downfall. He has been lucky enough to play with the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly who have always had their feet on the ground and have always been focused on playing quality cricket. Bhajji on the other hand, took his place in the team for granted and carried a body language that only ended up threatening his juniors.
Long back, in an interview, Harbhajan Singh had said, “I don’t know what would have I done without cricket. It was the only thing I knew.” The statement came from a young boy from Punjab who was hungry for wickets and enjoyed every bit of playing for the country. But all that changed once he achieved fame.
One can’t overlook the fact that in the 99 Tests he has played Harbhajan has 408 wickets to his name, which includes 25 five-wicket hauls whereas he has picked 10 wickets in a match on five occasions. But in a club which includes the likes of Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath and Anil Kumble, many believe he is the worst bowler to have done so. The 32-year-old needs to understand that in spite of all the media hype, he needs to play cricket with the same intensity as he used to as a kid from Punjab, who knew nothing apart from playing cricket. The results will follow.
When a batsman reaches his nineties, in most of the cases, he takes extra precaution and the next ten runs are the hardest to come. When a bowler picks up four wickets, he bowls his heart out to pick one more, as ‘scalped four wickets’ sounds less relevant when compared to ‘claimed a five-wicket haul’. Likewise, when a veteran crosses 90 Tests, he somehow prays that he gets to play the next ten. With each passing Test, he realises he would soon join that elite club. Harbhajan would have been no different. He played his 98th Test against England in July 2011, played his 99th against England on 23 Nov 2012 and many believed that that was it for the off-spinner.
Harbhajan had made his debut under the captaincy of Mohammad Azharuddin. While Azharuddin would always regret missing the 100th Test by one match, Harbhajan should consider himself extremely lucky to have played his 100th against the Australians. He could either be content on having achieved the fate (courtesy selectors), or show the world that he thoroughly deserved it, with a formidable show. But with the kind of performance that he’d displayed in the first Test, the big question is, does he deserve to play his 101st Test?