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Harbhajan Singh: The slim sorcerer from Jalandhar

One man, Anil Kumble, has been intrinsic to India's tremendous run of successes at home over the last decade. Without Kumble, India did not stand a snowball's chance in hell of bowling Australia out twice to win a Test match. Hamlet without the Prince, shouted the doomsday prophets. In the span of one month, Harbhajan Singh Plaha, a wiry 20-year-old from Jalandhar, had smashed that theory into smithereens. Breaking into the Test squad on the strength of a productive showing for India A against the tourists, he proceeded to collect 32 wickets in the series; no other Indian bowler got more than 3. An old weakness for off spin came back to haunt the Aussies like never before; they frisked blithely to the crease like lambs to the slaughter house and Harbhajan played his part of executioner with brutal relish.

Shortly after making his Test debut as a 17 year old against Australia at Bangalore in 1998, Harbhajan's action ran afoul of ICC match referees Ranjan Madugalle and Peter Van Der Merwe. Following a directive from the ICC throwing panel, he was dropped for two one-day competitions in Dhaka and Sharjah. The BCCI unfortunately showed little interest in aggressively backing up their player like the Sri Lankans had done with Muralitharan. A brief visit to Fred Titmus' London clinic in November 1998 cleared him but the mental scars would have taken much longer to heal. Harbhajan fashioned a comeback to the Test side on the tour of New Zealand but was never given the confidence to settle smoothly into the team.

After making 8 Test appearances over a year and a half, Harbhajan was one of the casualties of India's disastrous tour Down Under in 1999/2000, although he was not played in the Tests. In May 2000, the Board launched one of the most ambitious schemes in its history: the National Cricket Academy. Composed mostly of fringe players, Harbhajan was one of the few Test caps who were invited, and it seemed as though a career blighted by ill fortune was finally on the upswing. Halfway through the Academy's sitting, he was thrown out along with two others on grounds of indiscipline. A more debilitating blow followed with the death of his father shortly afterwards.

The cup of woe was brimming over but Harbhajan did not sit and mope in a welter of self-pity. The Ranji Trophy season was getting underway in October and Harbhajan buried himself in his game with earnest. A hatful of wickets led Punjab to five successive wins in the North Zone league, four by an innings, and in a trice his name was bandied about again by the same powers who had sought to close all avenues on him. Harbhajan even practised hard on his batting and if you watched the winning stroke against Glenn McGrath at Chennai, it was certainly not the nervous prod of a tailender. His bowling was a mystery for the Australian batsmen, some of whom like Ricky Ponting arrived in India with a reputation to protect against spin bowling. Ponting averaged 3.4, falling each time to the Punjab off spinner, and was close to a nervous wreck as the series ended. No bowler ever dominated a series as lopsidedly as Harbhajan; with Kumble's impending return, India can boast two Princes on the same stage.

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Harbhajan Singh
Harbhajan Singh

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