It was a peaceful evening in a second floor room at Sydney's Radisson Hotel in the early days of January this year. Harbhajan Singh had invited Zaheer Khan — his leg in a cast and set to return to India on the morrow — Ishant Sharma and team manager Lalchand Rajput to share the home-cooked parathas and raajma that a local friend had brought him.
Bhajji had taken to mentoring Ishant and it was common to see the two of them hanging out together in the evenings. There was a lot of talk and good-natured ribbing on when Rajput got a call on his phone from team media manager MV Sridhar, saying there “was a problem”.
Rajput, still smiling, signalled for silence and the happy trio toned down their chirruping. And then, Rajput’s jaw dropped. He looked at Harbhajan, told Sridhar he was in fact “sitting in his room”, and hung up abruptly, turning to Harbhajan. “The Australians have complained officially. You're being charged with racially abusing Symonds.”
The saga begins
There was a stunned silence for a few seconds and then incredulous looks all around before Harbhajan spoke. “Racial abuse?! Maine bola kya? Gaali toh voh bhi de rahe they. (What did I say? They were swearing too).” The phone rang suddenly, he answered and, as if on auto-pilot, muttered “no comment” into it and hung up. On someone’s suggestion, he called the operator with instructions: “I'm only available to my teammates,” he said, his face a mixture of indignation and stress. And then, everyone started talking at once, offering support and advice.
What happened over the next few days and weeks is now part of cricketing lore, and depending on which side of the sharp India-Australia cricketing divide you are on, Harbhajan is either a lout or a guy who was targeted because he dared to give it back to the Aussies.
But in the months since that January evening, when his teammates and captain gathered around him in a support of unity rarely witnessed in Indian cricket, Harbhajan went from being the fiery symbol of India's ability to not take any rubbish to being an embarrassment — during the IPL and the Sreesanth fiasco.
Time to move on
And while he bowled well enough in Lanka, this series really, was a time for redemption for him and proving a point. He had told the Hindustan Times just ahead of the Aussie arrival, that he was “tired of all the bad boy crap”. “If you look back you'll get stuck in life. So any time I think I'm looking back or letting something that's happened in the past affect my present, I try and banish that thought from my head, I try and free myself of it,” he'd said.
It’s always tough to believe someone who says he manages to free his mind from his past. It's a difficult and painful thing to do and requires tremendous effort. Yet, it is something Harbhajan seems to have managed where it matters — on the cricketing field. Off it, sigh, he has been dragged into another needless controversy of late, but that though, was not of his making.
Man on a mission
On Monday, in front of what is virtually his home crowd (he is from Jalandhar), Harbhajan came back into his own against a team he has always riled, ever since those 32 priceless wickets in the 2000-2001 series. Hayden, Katich and Hussey all fell in quick succession, giving him 3-3 at one stage and putting India on the last leg of the road to victory.
In March 2001, he was part of a team that was in its element, with individual stars all at the peak of their prowess. Seven years on, some of those stars are in the twilight of their careers, a couple are bidding adieu, but Harbhajan still goes on. With Sehwag and Zaheer, he is the bridge that will support an Indian team through transition.
It will be interesting to see how Harbhajan handles the not-so-far future, a time when Kumble will not be there and he will be India's first spinner, unequivocally.
Kumble and Harbhajan for years — and especially in India — have been the world's premier spinning pair. Amit Mishra has had an outstanding debut but it's far too early to say how things will go from here.
Abroad, of course, Harbhajan will be happy forging a combine with pals Zaheer or/and Ishant and their first major test is barely four-odd months away, when India travel to New Zealand, a country they have not won a series in since 1967-68.
Spinner No. 1
What will also be intriguing is how the Harbhajan-Dhoni equation works. The plus for India here is that Harbhajan is already Dhoni's No.1 control bowler in ODIs — Dhoni has never captained Kumble. So presumably, he knows how to handle the offie.
It has to be difficult to be Harbhajan Singh — his quick temper, propensity to dive headlong into any situation and flamboyantly passionate love of life makes him an easy target as much as it drags him through controversy after controversy. Yet, this now, is his time of reckoning.
Kumble's big boots will be difficult to fill, even for a man with 299 wickets. But his teammates are betting Harbhajan will come through, not just with the ball in hand, but also as a responsible senior member of the future India.