Some characters of the game are irreplaceable and one of them is fiery and at times hot-headed Harbhajan Singh, who has been part of some of India's sweetest victories in the last two decades.
Born in Ludhiana, the Sardar always had the magic in his fingers to turn matches on his head. During his prime, Harbhajan was a pure matchwinner and formed the fulcrum of Sourav Ganguly's Indian side in the early 2000's. The Turbanator has been able to adapt to the demands of the game and is still going strong in the domestic circuit at least.
Harbhajan Singh scalped 12 wickets in his Under-16 debut match for Punjab against Haryana in November 1995. His impressive performance at various age levels rallied him to make his first-class debut in Ranji Trophy against Services in October 1997 and booked his berth in the Indian team for 1998 ICC U-19 World Cup. He had a decent outing in U-19 World Cup by picking eight wickets in six matches.
Harbhajan Singh was picked by Mumbai Indians in the inaugural season of IPL and remained with the franchise till 2017. He played an instrumental part in Mumbai's maiden title-winning 2013 season where he picked up as many as 24 wickets. He was also very handy with the bat, scoring a 24-ball 64 against Kings XI Punjab in 2015, a match he tried to win after the top-order was blown away.
However, after the euphoric high of 2013, Harbhajan Singh started to become more of a containing bowler and wickets came in sporadically. After 10 years with the franchise, he was let go and CSK instantly snaffled him up for the turning tracks of Cheapauk. Since 2018, Bhajji has been showing his magic on the dusty old strip of Chennai and so far has been moderately successful-- taking 23 wickets in 24 matches.
A month later after hi Test debut, the Ludhiana lad made his ODI debut against New Zealand. However, just like his test debut failure, the ODI debut was also forgettable as he could only pick up a single wicket.
Harbhajan had a mixed tournament at the 2003 Cricket World Cup, taking 11 wickets at 30.45 with an economy rate of 3.92 in ten matches. He was the first-choice spinner and played in all matches but one, being dropped for the victory against arch-rivals Pakistan in the group phase.
In the final, Ganguly elected to field and Harbhajan was the only Indian bowler to take a wicket, taking 2/49 from eight overs.
After the Monkeygate scandal in Sydney, the CB series became a matter of pride for Harbhajan and the Indian team. Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds who had riled the Turbanator most in the Test series became a bunny of sorts for the off-spinner.
In the first final in Sydney, he removed both Hayden and Symonds in the space of four overs, caught from his bowling. In the second final in Brisbane, he completed the run out of Hayden after a mix-up, and then trapped Symonds leg before wicket in the same over.
Harbhajan played in all eight of India's round-robin matches in the Commonwealth Bank series, which also involved Sri Lanka, taking five wickets at 39.00.
Harbhajan Singh was part of the 2011 World Cup-winning squad and chipped in with decent performances. After 2011, injuries and indifferent form caused Bhajji to routinely lose his place in the side. He was not selected for the 2015 World Cup and couldn’t make the cut for 2017 Champions Trophy either.
After taking eight wickets after his debut Ranji match, Harbhajan was selected to tour Australia in 1999–2000, as the second spinner. However, a 17-year-old Harbhajan was far from creating an impression on his international Test debut against Australia in March 1998, as he only managed to take two wickets. His performance in first two years saw him getting axed from the Test squad.
It seemed like his career was going downhill after debuting in 1998. However, Sourav Ganguly, India's captain during the 2000-2005 phase was firm in his backing for getting the Sardar in the squad for the historical 2001 home series against Australia.
Bhajji made a spectacular comeback by claiming 32 wickets in 3 tests against Australia in 2001. He became the first Indian to claim a test hat-trick in the second innings that turned the game on its head.
In the coming years Harbhajan formed a lethal spin duo with Anil Kumble and tormented cricketing sides, series after series. His five for 13 in the fourth test in Jamaica in July 2006 helped India to win a test series on Caribbean soil after 35 years.
However, soon came trouble which changed the Indian cricket team and the entire cricketing world. The infamous Sydney Test and the ‘monkey gate’ scandal. While Steve Bucknor and Daryl Harper game controversial decisions that made India lose the match from seemingly a winning position, the umpiring howlers were somewhat forgotten when Harbhajan batting on the third day of the Sydney Test became involved in an altercation with Australia's Andrew Symonds. As a result of this, he was charged with a Level 3 offence of racially abusing Symonds by calling the Australian—of Caribbean descent—a "monkey".
At a hearing after the conclusion of the Test, match referee Mike Procter found Harbhajan guilty and banned him for three Tests. This decision generated controversy because no audio or video evidence was available, and the conviction relied on the testimony of the Australian players. However, after the Indian team threatened for boycotting the Test, the decision was reversed.
The Ludhiana lad last played a Test match against Sri Lanka in 2015 and since then has made a couple of comebacks in the limited-overs side but the Test bowling setup is stacked with R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav forming the fulcrum of the side.
Harbhajan Singh made his T20I debut against South Africa in 2006 and was also a part of the MS Dhoni-led inaugural T20 world cup winning side. He is fondly remembered for his match-winning spell against Pakistan in the group stage. He also bowled in the bowl-out in the match and hit the bulls-eye. Apart from the final, Harbhajan had impressive outings in nearly every match. His dismissal of Michael Clarke in the semi-final with a Yorker is still very well etched in Cricket-lovers memories.
Harbhajan went on to play the 2009 T20 WC and 2012 WC as well. His spell of 4 for 12 versus England at R Premadasa Stadium, Colombo in the 2012 edition is one of the finest. Harbhajan after being in and out of the Indian side was picked in the 2016 T20 WC held in India but didn’t get a single outing. His last T20I outing came against UAE in March, 2016.
Harbhajan Singh is married to Geeta Basra and has a little daughter named Hinaya Heer Plaha. He is also an Officer in the Punjab Police and has held the rank of a Superintendent of police (India), reporting to Punjab Police HQ at Barnala.