On the face of it, Harbhajan Singh has everything a cricketer would want to achieve. No more than 10 cricketers have more Test wickets than he has; five of those are within reach. Three hundred and ninety-three is a very satisfying number to retire with, let alone possess midway through a career. He is India's undisputed No. 1 spinner in Test cricket, and certainly in that genre his closest competitor is merely on the horizon.
Why then is greatness casting a glance at him before moving on? A little nod maybe, an occasional pat on the back, but rarely an embrace. Has Harbhajan Singh become everything he can be? Are there peaks to conquer that he knows of? Craves? These are not merely literary allusions; the answers will reveal whether the Harbhajan Singh we see from now is an impersonation of the bowler we know or someone who will leave this number far behind and achieve what can be his.
In recent times he has looked troubled. True, there have been patches of brilliance, but far too many inconsequential batsmen have played him with ease. The offbreak that pitches outside off fizzes in a little more politely. Far too often the ball is pinged onto the pads with square leg for support. Maybe it is the need to contain, maybe those are the demands of 20-over cricket, but those are for simple men with little to offer: those who must fall back to the demands of the batsman, those who must pay obeisance to the bat. The crafty spinner makes an occasional concession but reverts to setting the rules. In most contests between bat and ball, the cannier must control. Harbhajan can be the cannier, but too often he lets the batsman play that role.
To be fair, not everyone can be great every day. Shane Warne couldn't be, neither could Murali or Kumble. Why, even Federer is discovering that. But greatness maintains its class on a bad day; it still requires the opponent to sweat to overcome. As Martina Navratilova said - and it is something we must all know - "It is not about how good you are when you are playing well, it is how good you are when you are playing badly." Harbhajan is excellent when he is playing well, but when he is playing badly, he doesn't attack you with the force of 393 wickets behind him.
Maybe when he was younger, his undoubted grit ignited performance. He has an inspiring story to tell, of perseverance, of fighting rejection, of facing failure. He rode above that to become the player he could be. Now he needs to rediscover something else, for fame and acceptance can dull the fire within; sometimes the perks of success can overwhelm and come in the way of greater success. Beyond a point the perks are easily available, but that is not what a champion plays for.
Maybe there is doubt somewhere, maybe insecurity is buzzing around. Both can push you into a comfort zone, that great enemy of achievement. Maybe he needs to combat it all over again, like his mentor, the great Anil Kumble, did before he could become the best player he could be.
From here on, Harbhajan will have to look beyond numbers, stop scouring the horizon for competition, for there is no one of his ability there. He needs to fly beyond and search within, let his ambition drag him to untenanted peaks. It can only come from being the bowler he wants to be. When the great Shane Warne wasn't bowling the way he wanted to, he hopped a flight to Adelaide to meet his old mentor, and just bowled and bowled and bowled till the ball obeyed him.
As spinners go, Harbhajan is still young enough to look ahead rather than behind. Greatness is not out of bounds; it visited Courtney Walsh, and even Kumble, a touch late in life. But he must look within, for that is where the greatest strength resides. Today he is being unfair to himself and anyone who tells him otherwise is telling him tales.
I believe Harbhajan Singh was born to be great, but now he must make his tryst with destiny. And he must do it himself.
That ball pinged on leg stump can only be an occasional concession to a situation.