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Harbhajan Singh turns 34: Is there a comeback in the offing?

Harbhajan Singh last played for India in 2013  © Getty Images
Harbhajan Singh last played for India in 2013 © Getty Images

Harbhajan Singh is arguably one of Indian cricket’s finest bowlers but hasn’t been at his best for a while. On his 34th birthday, Shiamak Unwalla looks at the road ahead for the man who was once the toast of the nation.

Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his iconic dialogue, “I’ll be back,” in his role as the titular Terminator in the 1984 James Cameron-directed Sci-Fi classic. It is a line that would suit Harbhajan “Turbanator” Singh quite well at the moment.

Bhajji, as he is fondly called, has not been India’s lead spinner for quite some time now. The advent of Ravichandran Ashwin and the meteoric rise of Ravindra Jadeja have meant that India’s former champion bowler is now in the wilderness of domestic cricket. For someone who has played over 100 Tests and almost 230 ODIs, making a comeback at the age of 34 is not outside the realms of possibility.

Harbhajan started off as someone who looped the ball regularly, foxed batsmen with his doosra, and captured wickets by the truckload. With time and the advent of Twenty20 (T20) cricket, his bowling became more and more defensive. The objective changed from going for wickets to saving runs. The tantalising loop was replaced by leg-stump darts. The doosra disappeared entirely. And Harbhajan, the wicket-snaring Turbanator, was replaced by Harbhajan the mostly-economical-and-sometimes-wicket-taking-option.

He was dropped from the Test team in 2011, after India’s nightmarish series in England. He made a couple of fleeting appearances after that, playing England again once in 2012 and Australia a couple of times in 2013. But those were almost token appearances; an opportunity for him to go past 100 Tests for India.

It seemed that Harbhajan — that passionate, fierce, lion-hearted cricketer — had played his last game for India. He was stable during the 2013 domestic season, but did not set the world alight. The ICC World T20 2014 saw Amit Mishra peaking wonderfully, to go with Ashwin and Jadeja, who were already ahead of the curve.

However, the Indian Premier League (IPL) 7 showed a glimpse of the Harbhajan of old. He and Lasith Malinga were the only two Mumbai Indians (MI) bowler who looked at all threatening. After Malinga departed for Sri Lanka’s tour of England, the responsibility of leading Mumbai’s attack was taken up by Harbhajan. He may not have had the figures to show for it, but ‘Bhajji’ was back!

The loop, the markedly slower pace, the bite, and the will to take wickets were all back. In fact, Harbhajan made his views clear when he was not selected for India’s tour to Bangladesh or India A’s tour of Australia. He spoke about his performance in IPL 7, saying, “Among the Indian spinners, I believe that I bowled the best.”

Harbhajan is not a part of any Indian squad at the moment. However, Ashwin’s overseas record is far from impressive; Mishra’s form since the World T20 has not been too good; and Jadeja isn’t as potent as one would like. It seems that Harbhajan is rediscovering himself at the right time. If he can put in some soliddisplays soon, he could well find himself back in Indian colours in time for the ICC World Cup 2015. Perhaps this isn’t quite hasta la vista for him yet!

(Shiamak Unwalla is a reporter with Cricket Country. He is a self-confessed Sci-Fi geek and Cricket fanatic who likes to pass his free time by reading books, watching TV shows, and eating food. Sometimes all at the same time. You can follow him on twitter at @ShiamakUnwalla)

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