March 23, 2001

Harbhajan Singh: Succeeding in trying circumstances

On the 6th of November 1999, the Barkatullah Khan Stadium at Jodhpur hosted a match between the visiting New Zealanders and the Board President's XI. Late in the day, when Board President's XI were on the field, a rather unusual incident occurred. Halfway through an over, Harbhajan Singh, fielding at square leg threw his arms up in the air, pumped his fists and celebrated wildly. He had not taken a catch, no wicket had fallen, nothing on the field was worth celebrating. Then it became clear. The public address system had just let everyone know that Harbhajan Singh had been included in the Indian squad for the series against New Zealand. Speaking to this correspondent at the end of the day's play, the young man was excited as was to be expected. However, he was not altogether swept off his feet "I expected the call. I'm a regular bowler for my state side and have been doing well in recent matches. The first Test match is at Mohali, my home ground and I hope to do well there," said the young man.

As it turned out, Harbhajan Singh picked up just six wickets at 38 apiece in the two Tests he played. A far cry from the series that has just ended. Peddling his wares against Australia, probably the strongest team in the world at the moment, Harbhajan Singh scalped 32 wickets at an average of just over 17. But then again, Harbhajan Singh is a different man now.

The Punjab offspinner has gone through so much in his personal life that his success is a tribute to his resilience. After being picked for India and failing to live upto expectations, Harbhajan Singh was relegated to the cricketing wilderness for a time to come. When he did make his comeback to the Indian side, doubts were raised about the legality of his action. Dropped from the side, the young offspinner had to undergo the ignominy of several tests. The last one of those came in the form of a trip to England where former England off spinning allrounder Fred Titmus had a look at Harbhajan's action. Without a second thought Harbhajan Singh was cleared.

When he was back in action in the domestic circuit, Harbhajan Singh was a changed man. No bowler likes to have his action questioned, justified or otherwise. On a relaxed evening, after a hard day out in the field for Punjab, his state side, Harbhajan spoke about his experience in England. There was no fuss, no elaborate suspicion, nothing. Harbhajan Singh was asked to bowl a few balls, was cleared and that was that.

Just when it looked like things were going well for Harbhajan, a personal setback put him down again. Not six months ago, Harbhajan lost his father a big blow for a young man just 20 years of age. Ever since that happened, Harbhajan has changed the way he approaches the game. Following this, the way he went about managing himself underwent a change. After almost being dropped by Indian Airlines, his corporate side, Harbhajan Singh's cup of woe spilled over.

And yet, Harbhajan Singh responded by spinning India to victory against the Aussies. While he took 32 wickets, the remaining ten bowlers used in the series could manage just 17 between them. That surely is as much as you can expect of someone. In his manner and deeds, Harbhajan Singh has silenced critics across the board.