HARBHAJAN SINGH will be desperate to play in the third Test in Delhi. Nursing a sore toe, he may be hampered but will not want to miss the chance to lower the Australian colours.
A dry pitch has been prepared, besides which the dreaded "Bhaji" is not scared of the Australians and never has been. After all, he took 32 wickets against them in their first meeting in 2001. The sight of an Australian cricketer sparks something in him, a mixture of competitive fervour and national pride. He tells friends he does not like the way the Australian team walks about like it’s the best thing since buttered naan. Asked to name his favourite Australian players, he mentions Steve Waugh and Glenn McGrath and then grinds to a halt. Adam Gilchrist is dismissed as a "sweet knife".
Harbhajan provokes wildly different reactions in different quarters. To some, he is a "sardar with nothing in his head", to others a scallywag, while enemies cast him as a scoundrel. Even pals admit he is an eternal child, while the more conservative elements in his community regret his social excesses, especially his drinking and indiscreet dancing on television. Now and then he has to apologise for breaking taboos. Not long ago, he was in hot water with the local cricket community for slapping a sometime teammate in a heated exchange. Afterwards his press conference drew a bigger crowd than the average local nuptials, and hereabouts 700 is a small wedding.
It is a lot to pack into a short period. Add the death of his father in 2000 and his consequent acceptance of responsibility for his sisters and mother, and a picture forms of a young man who in some ways grew up too quickly and in other respects not at all. Like so many of his generation, the fearless ones seeking liberation in liberated India, he is a curious blend of ancient and modern.
One minute his generation is clubbing the night away, the next it is celebrating Diwali in the midst of a vast extended family. Bhaji is like that, reassured by tradition and yet straining at the leash. Blessed with a longer fuse, gentler tongue, and more patience, the country’s foremost off spinner could be an impressive figure. Instead, he remains a querulous youth.
Australia have been his breaking and making. Until the 2007-08 tour, locals had mixed feelings about him. Although popular as a person, and tolerated as mischievous but not malicious, he was regarded as a lucky and limited player whose game had not developed as expected. If anything, it had regressed. Critics said he had become a one-day bowler, had lost the subtleties and boldness needed to trouble Test batsmen.
Batsmen were ready for his doosra, knew how to milk him. Moreover, his action had been questioned and he had been forced onto the sidelines while kinks were ironed out. He had been fighting for his career.
Accordingly, he arrived in Australia last summer under considerable pressure. He could recall the flogging the same batsmen had given him in the only Test he had played on his previous visit. Admittedly, he had been inconvenienced by a damaged finger that needed surgery but the memory lingered. He knew, too, the Australians detested him, were angry about his conduct in the recent one-day series, especially the remarks directed at Andrew Symonds. Harbhajan was told monkey might be a childlike tease on the subcontinent but it was a taunt Down Under. He agreed to mind his mouth.
Among the darkest hours cricket has known, the SCG Test match changed everything, including Harbhajan’s standing in his own country. Australia’s pursuit of a charge they could not prove from an exchange they had initiated served only to unleash nationalistic forces in both countries and to turn Harbhajan into a populist champion. Ignoring their man’s churlishness, Indians circled the wagons around him.
To them, too, it seemed the Australians had tried to remove a thorn from their sides. Harbhajan had for several hours been thwarting the Australians. He is not much of a batsmen but has a way of scoring runs when it matters – he did so again in Bangalore.
Indeed, he survived for quite some time as India tried to stave off defeat in the second innings in Sydney. He does not back down. India liked him for that, forgave him a lot.
Now Harbhajan hopes to have the last laugh. Gilchrist has retired and his reminiscences have provoked ire. Symonds has walked the plank. Matthew Hayden has been injured and short of runs. Meanwhile, Harbhajan has played well, scoring important runs in the first encounter and bowling skilfully in Mohali. That he bowled slower and better under Mahendra Dhoni’s captaincy was not surprising because they are cut from the same contemporary stone, except the gloveman arrived as a fully grown man.
Dhoni encouraged his senior spinner to attack and Harbhajan responded with his most impressive display against Australian since 2001. In between he had a rough time and often deserved it. His conduct after taking wickets at the SCG was unbecoming, and though he has become more discreet, his tongue still has a nasty edge.
Given a chance, the game will sort him out. He cannot for much longer survive as the angry young man. Eventually the time comes to put aside the rage of youth and, without turning into a milksop, to give the game its dues.