Remembering Harbhajan Singh's 10-wicket match haul against Australia
India Down Under in 1999-2000 was a drubbing to forget for the Men in Blue. They never got it going. Whether it was against Tasmania or Queensland or also against Prime Minister's XI, India never held the upper hand. In the practice games, a young pace bowler troubled them. A then 23-year-old blonde bombshell from New South Wales, his name Brett Lee.
Well, moving on, Chandu Borde, the then Chairman of National Selectors, made some interesting selections in the squad. He left out Mohammed Azharuddin while including Ajit Agarkar and Ajay Jadeja. Among the surprise names on that tour was a long Punjabi name. A young off-spinner called Harbhajan Singh who India hadn't seen much of. There was no IPL then which puts all the spotlight on youngsters.
But it did ring bells. Back in 1998 when Australia came to India, there was a debutante in the third test. Oh, this is the same name, everyone would have thought. A young lean bowler had got the ball in his hands when Australia cruised at 76/1 at Bangalore. Harbhajan Singh Plaha read his name. But he managed to get Greg Blewett clean bowled in the first over he bowled.
A person who was capped alright but never in the spotlight.
We never got to see him play in that tour. Anil Kumble was still India's main armor with spin. The young lanky boy with his turban came back to Indian shores having seen the beautiful beaches of Australia and maybe the Opera house as well. India had nothing but time to visit Sydney anyway, it was the end of the disappointing tour.
The Border-Gavaskar Trophy back with the Kangaroos, India had to do something or the other, in a bid to get the trophy back home.
India's woes continued. Their lead spinner Anil Kumble was ruled out due to injury. India did not have many options and they turned to the boy with the turban again. This time, bound to take the field and also in spin-friendly conditions.
Australia and India came face to face for the first time in the Mumbai dust-bowl. A very dusty surface which provided assistance to the fielding side. Sachin Tendulkar somehow dug deep to score a fighting 76 but his team contributed only 100 more runs. India were bowled out for 176 in the first innings of the Mumbai Test.
In the second innings, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden were taking India's opening bowlers to the cleaners. At 71/1, Ganguly threw the ball to the man wearing the turban. Here he was again. There was something about his action. It was more sort of a dance step rather than a bowling action. And he had put on some weight, thank god, how lean he looked in 1998. But no matter how funny he was, it wasn't funny when he got three big scalps.
Round the wicket to Justin Langer and edged away to Rahul Dravid - the first wicket for the young Harbhajan Singh. Enough with the Plaha. Mark Waugh walked in at #4 for Aussies. Over the wicket this time, Harbhajan started dancing again before delivering the ball. Leg glance by Mark Waugh to the left side of Sourav Ganguly. Ganguly plucked the ball out of thin air. The lanky kid who people were making fun of, brought the crowd unglued at the Wankhede. 71/3, Australia, but Matthew Hayden was still at the pitch.
Australian captain, Steve Waugh walked in. Hat-trick ball for the young off-spinner. Up towards the sun, he looked and went in again. Sharp turn but the impact outside off, shot being offered, not-out. Waugh was dismissed shortly afterward at 98/4.
Harbhajan came in for another over. Ricky Ponting to face the second ball of his over. Harbhajan came in over the wicket, his unorthodox dancing action intact. Ponting took a big forward lunge at the ball and the edge went softly to silly point. Harbhajan with 3/8 from his first spell of bowling. But then came Adam Gilchrist to partner Matthew Hayden. A rain of boundaries followed with it.
Similar to their opening partnerships in ODIs, both players played fearlessly. Every ball put to the boundary or over it. Gilchrist enjoyed taking Harbhajan to the cleaners and brought his quickfire century up before Matthew Hayden did. The only consolation for the Punjabi was Gilchrist's inadvertent stumping. Even Shane Warne smashed a huge six off the off-spinner. Harbhajan's face in agony after toiling in the dusty heat of Mumbai.
All Bhajji got was a 4/121 from 28 overs and India lost the game by 10 wickets.
Kolkata, the next stop in the series. The toss for the Aussies and this time they batted first. Hayden and Slater opened the innings. Ganguly threw the ball to his only spinning option, hoping for a breakthrough after a fearsome partnership. Hayden had other ideas. The white mesh on his lips was the last thing that India didn't like.
He smashed Harbhajan out of the attack but Ganguly was defiant. He threw in the gamble without counting his chips. Harbhajan to Hayden, having been smashed previously, three short of the century. Hayden lunged the ball on the leg side and managed to pick out the only man there.
Australia struggled, losing two more wickets before breaching the 250-mark with Ponting and Steve Waugh on the pitch. At 252/4, Harbhajan Singh, the name more and more familiar, came back into the attack.
The first ball, Ricky Ponting on strike. Harbhajan's ball pitched just near the good length, but a little too low and a little too straight to be pushed on the leg side. Ponting got trapped, his leg going nowhere. LBW, Ricky Ponting. Australia 252/5.
Adam Gilchrist walked in. The fear should have been there. It was normal. Having already being torn apart by him at Mumbai, a young Harbhajan had to feel for his fingers before bowling to him. A Deja-Vu struck Bhajji. But it was a good one.
The first ball to Gilchrist pitches just inside leg stump and beats his cut shot to hit the pad. The young kid appealed for his life, up went the finger. A golden duck for the centurion at Mumbai. Australia 252/6. On a hat-trick for the second time in two matches.
This time he didn't look up to the heavens. He signaled to Ganguly, a fielder at the third man please. Shane Warne got his instructions from Steve Waugh, it was obvious, don't let him get the hattrick. A ball just towards the middle stump, Warne played it easily towards the leg side. But the Almighty had a hattrick for the youngster as Sadagopan Ramesh caught a stunning one-handed catch at forward short leg. Harbhajan clapped his hands in ecstasy as the Eden Gardens crowd erupted. The Indian team smothered the young kid. The first ever to take a hat-trick in Test Cricket for India. 252/7, Australia.
Teased for his name, teased for his bowling action, teased for his lean look, but a hattrick hero who saved the day at Eden Gardens. Harbhajan hadn't finished but neither had Australia. Steve Waugh's century managed to take Australia past the score of 400. And then, Harbhajan came to the rescue again. He got Gillespie edged out and he trapped Steve Waugh LBW as Australia finished the innings with 445 on board.
Bowled out for 171 in the first innings, India fought back with 657/7 in the second. VVS Laxman with a very, very, special 281. The Aussies had to chase down 384 on the final day but they wouldn't make it.
Hayden chipped a shot to mid-off early in the innings but it would be dropped. Harbhajan Singh the bowler. Not a senior member, couldn't express his dismay, he just took his brim hat and walked away. It would be no one else but him to get the breakthrough. Michael Slater with an advanced defensive shot chipped straight to silly point.
He smiled, fell into his captain's arms, the Eden Gardens smiled. They were witnessing a web of spin. He came into action again after Justin Langer and Hayden were steadying the ship at 106/1. A poor paddle shot by Langer went straight to short fine. The Punjabi spin machine went wild into celebrations with the smile getting broader.
It felt like he was a seasoned campaigner by the way he bowled, but his antics showed that he was just a young kid. Under tough conditions, Hayden brought his 50 up. Harbhajan showed up once again. 166/3, Australia. Steve Waugh with yet another leg glance for an easy catch from the leg-slip. Ricky Ponting walked in at 166/4. In the same over, he tried to play a paddle shot which caught his gloves and went straight at silly point. 166/5. Harbhajan Singh wreaked havoc.
Ganguly threw in his chips again. A gamble with Sachin Tendulkar, only one or two overs for you, he told him. And what spell it turned out to be. Sachin removed Gilchrist and Hayden leaving Australia at 173/7. He sent Shane Warne packing with a googly to reduce the Aussies to 174/8.
To finish off proceedings, Harbhajan got the wickets of Gillespie and McGrath. When the umpire lifted his finger, he ran to the stumps, plucked one of them and put his hand up in the air to let his emotions out. A 10-wicket game for the great Indian off-spinner.
A test match won on follow-on by India. The lanky and dancing spinner called Harbhajan Singh Plaha would go on to win the World Cup with India in 2011. But even better he would forever be known as the Turbanator, the Terminator with the Turban.