Harbhajan Singh would clench his fist in delight and jump in the air in ecstasy every time he took an Aussie wicket in that unforgettable Test series of 2001. His haul of 32 wickets rattled the then invincible Australia, led by Steve Waugh, and propelled India to a historic 2-1 series victory. Twelve years have gone since then and a lot has changed in Harbhajan's career.
Then an important member of the Indian team, the 32-year-old now finds it hard to even keep a regular place in the side. Earlier, he would be the captain's first choice to provide breakthroughs, but now, he doesn't give the captain enough confidence to give him a five-over spell. The Turbanator, as he was fondly referred to by everyone, would destroy the opposition's batting with his craft and guile before, but now he toils for hours to get one wicket. But having been picked for the first two Tests against Australia, Harbhajan - who is on the threshold of playing 100 Tests for the country - still has a chance to bring his tumultuous career back on track, may be, for one last time.
And since his selection is based more on his past laurels against the Aussies rather than his current form, it becomes all the more important for Harbhajan to find his mojo back. His 12 Tests against Australia have fetched him 90 wickets with an average just under 30. And he is certainly in line to add a few more to that tally, considering the first two Tests will be played on the spin-friendly tracks of Chennai and Hyderabad and, since Australia have plenty of left-handers in their squad.
But will he be able to get close to what he was 12 years back? For most of his fans he may, but for Erapalli Prasanna, the legendary Indian spinner, Harbhajan is past his prime. "Harbhajan doesn't seem to be the spinner he used to be. I don't think he has been selected on the basis of power-packed performances. He didn't impress much in the Irani Cup either. I don't think the wickets he took had much to do with trapping the batsmen with guile," Prasanna was quoted as saying recently.
And Prasanna had only stated the facts. Harbhajan had taken only 16 wickets before going into the Irani Cup match and, although he got five wickets in that outing, he looked half the player he once was. He looked like a spinner, who instead of working for a wicket, wanted one every delivery.
But, Harbhajan's returning to form will not only add to his own confidence, it will also make things more competitive among fellow spinners, especially between him and R Ashwin. The Tamil Nadu offspinner made rapid strides in his first few Tests - 40 wickets in just five Tests against West Indies and New Zealand - but was thoroughly exposed when pitted against better opponents, getting just nine wickets at 62.77 in Australia. He was expected to be the go-to man for Indian captain MS Dhoni in the home series against England, but he could neither stem the flow of runs nor take wickets - just 14 wickets to his name in four Tests, an average of 52.64.
What Graeme Swann, the English spinner, managed to do with his orthodox deliveries - troubling all the Indian batsmen and picking up crucial wickets - Ashwin could not do, despite having a couple of mystery balls in his repertoire. And Prasanna was quick to point out what Ashwin was lacking. "Ashwin needs to realise that one needs to attack and buy wickets in the longest format - deceive the batsmen with loop and penetration, he said adding, "He needs to work on his basics. His stock delivery isn't top class and at the international level, you can't succeed if your stock delivery isn't up to the mark and you rely more on variations."
So there is plenty at stake for both Harbhajan and Ashwin. While one will like to come out of the shadow of his glorious past to redefine his present, the other will be out to prove that he can be as good in the longer formats as he is in the shorter versions. While one will want to stamp his superiority once again over the opponents he has always cherished playing against, the other will want to show that he can be as effective against a better opponent as he is against a lesser one. And if both were able to perform according to their capabilities, India would accomplish a long-awaited victory, a victory that will be cherished by one and all.
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