Five of his best
Harbhajan Singh chose one of the most gripping Test matches of all-time to announce himself to the world. Matthew Hayden's robust 97 seemed set to give world-champions Australia full control on the first afternoon when Harbhajan intervened with his wicket, and followed it up with Mark Waugh's. He then sliced through the middle order, dismissing the out of form Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne off successive balls - the first Test hat-trick by an Indian bowler. Despite his seven-wicket haul, India fell behind quickly and were forced to follow-on after a batting collapse. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid then produced an epic 376-run stand, including a close-to chanceless vigil through the entire fourth day, to set Australia 384 to win in a little over two sessions. The tea-time score of 161 for 3 suggested the game was headed for a stalemate, but Harbhajan's bounce and loop combined lethally with Sachin Tendulkar's irresistible turn in the final session. Gilchrist and Warne collected pairs, while Ponting added a duck to go with his scratchy first-innings 6 as Australia disintegrated on the dusty track in the dying light. Harbhajan trapped Glenn McGrath in front moments before stumps as India surged to an astonishing win to end Australia's 16-match winning streak and level the series.
Australia, with the exception of Hayden, had clearly not managed to decode their nemesis in time for the decider in Chennai. Hayden again propelled Australia towards dominance on the first day before Harbhajan scythed through the middle order on the second morning. Steve Waugh's freak dismissal, palming away a back-spinning ball after dead-batting it, gave India the opening and Harbhajan barged in rampantly. Gilchrist managed a single this time, while Ponting collected his second successive duck, and Warne his third as Australia lost their last seven wickets for 51, rendering Hayden's magnificent double-hundred futile. Tendulkar's measured century, ably supported by the rest of the top order, gave India a 110-run lead, allowing Harbhajan to bowl with attacking fields. Hayden and Michael Slater added an attacking 82 for the first wicket, but Gilchrist's promotion to No. 3 ended in failure as he once again fell lbw to Harbhajan. The Waugh twins scrapped in the Chennai heat, but Harbhajan's persistence and the devils in the pitch finally broke their resistance, before the tail surrendered. Chasing 155 on the fourth day, Laxman scattered the field with a sublime half-century as India sped to 101 for 2 before Jason Gillespie and Colin Miller dismantled the middle order. With two wickets remaining, and McGrath charging in with purpose, Man-of-the-Series Harbhajan squeezed the winning runs through the covers, completing one of the most remarkable comebacks in cricket's history.
Harbhajan's best performance in Sri Lanka is mostly forgotten since it came in a series remembered for Ajantha Mendis' grand arrival, and in a match remembered for a mind-boggling double-century from Virender Sehwag. Unmindful of his team-mates' travails against Mendis, Sehwag battered an unbeaten 201 off 231 balls to steer India to 329. Malinda Warnapura, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene set up a strong response before Harbhajan, supported by Anil Kumble, began to chip away. Warnapura was enticed into slicing a loopy delivery to point, before Sangakkara scooped a leading edge back to the bowler. Thilan Samaraweera was pinned on the crease by a slider, and Tillakaratne Dilshan - still a middle-order batsman - jabbed at a rapidly dipping offbreak to be caught close-in. Sri Lanka finished 37 runs behind, before Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir ensured they would need more than 300 in the fourth innings. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer removed the top order cheaply even as Samaraweera resisted, while Harbhajan ran through the lower order in haste to finish with a ten-wicket match haul.
India's No. 1 ranking was at stake after Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla mauled them in the first Test in Nagpur, and Harbhajan copped his share of criticism for failing to pull his weight. The pattern seemed to be repeating at Eden Gardens as debutant Alviro Petersen and Amla slammed tons to push South Africa past 200 for the loss of only one wicket. Zaheer Khan broke the momentum by accounting for both batsmen in his afternoon spell, leaving the middle order prone to Harbhajan at his favourite venue. Jacques Kallis top-edged a topspinner before left-handers Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy were nailed by straighter ones from round the stumps as the visitors slumped from 218 for 1 to 296 all out. Sehwag, Laxman, MS Dhoni and Tendulkar replied with centuries as India piled on a lead of 347. Their push for a series-levelling win was interrupted by intermittent rain and poor light on the fourth day, though they managed to pick up three wickets. On the final day, Amla, in the form of his life, was determined to stone-wall India's intent, forcing the hosts to concentrate their efforts on the other end. Harbhajan led the way with a mixture of drift and bounce that made him lethal from round the stumps. Prince's defiance ended when he stabbed at an overspinner, before Duminy and Steyn were foxed by sliders. The tail hung in gamely as Amla threatened to save the game. No. 11 Morne Morkel survived for well over an hour and South Africa were minutes away from a draw when Harbhajan struck Morkel's pads and took off as Eden Gardens roared.
The new year Test in Cape Town was lit up by a battle for the ages involving Tendulkar and Steyn, and by Kallis' masterclasses in both innings. It also featured the best and worst of Harbhajan. He had gone wicketless in the first innings, as Kallis countered Sreesanth's verve and zip to take South Africa to 362. Gambhir defied the new ball ably, but his and Laxman's dismissals just before the advent of the second new ball exposed the lower order to Steyn's fury. Tendulkar stood up to his menace with his 51st Test ton, while Harbhajan contributed a ballsy 40 to help India match South Africa's effort even as the pitch wore away to resemble a subcontinental sandpit. Harbhajan got to work immediately in the second innings, making clever use of the uneven bounce to trap Graeme Smith, Petersen and Paul Harris in front. He then got Amla to miss a sweep as South Africa stuttered to 64 for 4. Kallis then produced his second classic of the match, defying a side strain and a brute of a wicket to tame Harbhajan at his best. He neutered the offspinner's intent to use the rough outside the off stump by deploying a series of reverse-sweeps, and with each stroke managed to deflate Harbhajan's confidence. Inevitably, Harbhajan slipped into a defensive mindset and the lack of support at the other end allowed Kallis to push South Africa ahead. He was immovable, but Harbhajan accounted for the tail to end South Africa's resistance. It took a gritty Gambhir rearguard on the final day to earn India a draw.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo