Harbhajan Singh: Remembering the batsman who saved India from defeat
November 7, 2010. The day a shy 20-year old by the name of Kane Williamson stepped into the limelight with a century on debut. At the same time, a veteran of the sport, who appeared more ‘weathered’ than ‘seasoned’, was beginning to fade away into the sunset. The same, feisty man who had Steve Waugh’s mighty XI bow before him 9 years ago, was now having impatience get the better of him.
43 overs. 1 wicket for 112 runs. These were his figures at the end of New Zealand’s first innings.
He’s a confidence bowler, said the desperate commentators. Just a couple of early wickets and you’ll see a different bowler altogether! Were they suggesting that Mr. Harbhajan Singh Plaha, Celebrated Member, 300+ Wickets Club, couldn’t deal with a bad start? Couldn’t take the pressure? Or was powerless without Big Brother Kumble?
India in major trouble
But the game of cricket is such that the focus on individuals is short-lived. Half an hour later, India found themselves tottering at 15/5 in the second innings. That soon became 65/6 with even Captain Cool failing to inspire a fightback with the bat. Chris Martin, the 36-year old workhorse had his tail up, galloping towards the popping crease with increased purpose in his trademark leap, delivering the red cherry quicker than he ever had. And it was in this conundrum that Harbhajan Singh found himself back on the cricket field in Motera, much earlier than anyone would have imagined.
He can bat, said the optimistic Indian fan. But this was real pressure. India being crushed by a lower ranked team on home soil looked like a real – the only – possibility. Harbhajan had made a useful 69 in the first innings, a knock which was instrumental in India snatching a slender first innings lead of 28. But the lead meant nothing now. It was just Harbhajan and VVS Laxman, taking guard against the likes of Chris Martin and Daniel Vettori. The lead wasn’t much of a cushion for The Confidence Bowler to lean on.
The duo saw the team through to the end of Day 4, each of them curbing his own instincts. But an entire day still remained. A quick-fire 30 from the Turbanator, something he was known for, wasn’t going to help. A Very Very Special Partnership was on demand.
Day 5. Session 1. Harbhajan brought out a beautiful cover drive, bisecting the gap in the field with perfection. Laxman displayed his own range of sublime strokes and his quirky superstitions of 22 taps on the crease, providing Harbhajan all the more reason to stick it out. There were a few tense moments, a few misjudgements on Bhajji’s part, shots which he shouldn’t have attempted. The Writing on The Wall turned bold, italicized and underlined.
But the pair survived, with India going to lunch wicket-less, daring to believe that a draw was possible. And India did reach a position of safety, with the Kiwis losing their zip, and with it, the edge they possessed.
An incredible innings
The Nervous 90s has always been a much-feared space, and Harbhajan was no exception, especially after having seen his senior partner depart on 91.
But then at 95, came a six off his bat, over extra cover. It was perhaps the most fitting way he could have reached his maiden Test century: gutsy, carefree and tail-ender like. Smile-inducing.
Except, as Harbhajan showed on that day, he was more than just a tail-ender. His imitation of Sachin Tendulkar’s stance on reaching three-figures may have just been a tribute to The Maestro, but it also symbolised his belief of being equally capable of meeting unrealistic hopes.
Just like how he had defied predictions with the ball in 2001 at The Eden Gardens (with the help of Laxman and Dravid), he proved yet again that he was more than just your average ‘confidence player’. The match may have resulted in a ‘boring’ draw, but it gave us all a lesson in character.
Amidst the sloppy footwork, the wild swings and misses, and the occasional lazy running, Harbhajan seemed to provide a sense of security every time he stepped onto the field with a bat. Because he had the numbers on his side. He may not have had the perfect technique, but his temperament has compensated for his inadequacies many a time.
As Steve Waugh once said, “It isn’t about how pretty you look, it’s about how many runs you make.” And scoring runs in difficult situations is what Bhajji did on numerous occasions, achieving an enviable tail-end record of 9 test fifties and 2 test centuries. Not all of them may have been match-winning, but each of those innings has given us fond memories to hold on to.