Harbhajan Singh had just become the first Indian to take a Test hattrick. It was against Steve Waugh’s Australia on a mission of stringing for themselves a record 17 Test wins at the Eden Gardens in early 2001. With the first three balls of his 16th over, he had Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist out leg-before and then a sharp catch by Sadagoppan Ramesh at shortleg got rid of Shane Warne sending Harbhajan off on a run like a footballer celebrates after scoring. Eden already had something to cheer about on the first day of the Test.
The post-match media conferences used to be held in the lobby between the dressing rooms then. In a lighter vein, skipper Sourav Ganguly, on way to the Home Team room said something about ‘Bhajji’ taking questions in English.
“Kya dada, aap bhi na” the 21-year-old had said, with an aside that was not a bad mimicry of an Amitabh Bachchan film dialogue,
“I can walk English.” He had only begun with typical spontaneity but checked himself with a wink and a mischievous smile when he realised he had to settle down for a press conference.
It is this very North Indian and full-of-life air about the ‘Turbanator’ that lifts spirits in a dressing room. But that’s only when Harbhajan is taking wickets. During dry spells he can, according to some of his Punjab Ranji Trophy teammates, be very temperamental and moody.
An emotional time
The Eden success came against the run of a series of downsides for the off-spinner. He had been called for chucking and had to pass the Fred Titmus test in England after being dropped from the side. He had lost his father, then his only friend, philosopher and guide and this was how he responded. In that three-Test series against Australia, he bagged a whopping 32 wickets when all the other bowlers’ combined haul was just over half that number.
“He worked day in and day out on the machines himself,” Harbhajan said of his father in an interview to HT last year. His hands would be caked and sore, his face would be grimy and he would keep working to make sure we had a better life. “We were very close. I miss him, he loved cricket and was so involved in it. He would have been so proud of me if he was here,” he had said after the Eden hattrick.
Harbhajan’s pranks and banter can sometimes be irritating to teammates depending on their personal form or mood but it’s just so difficult to ignore such a character. “He can get under the opponents’ skin very fast with his attitude,” Ravi Shastri, who was the cricket manager of the India team for a while last year, says of him. And he was not wrong when the Aussies got back some of their own medicine.
The monkey talk
A certain Justice John Hansen will debate on whether ‘monkey’ was said or not but the next day after dismissing Ricky Ponting, Harbhajan sure celebrated like one twice rolling over after a celebratory run.
But that’s Bhajji, a doosra to Samuel Eto’o, who after getting monkey chants in Madrid celebrated like one after scoring against their arch rivals.
This is conjectural but perhaps Harbhajan’s jubilation and the way he acted it out had something to do with the monkeys not rare close to the Ferozeshah Kotla, one of which ran riot on the newsdesk of a media office some years back.
Harbhajan still lives in the Jalandhar house he grew up in. Around 20 minutes by an auto-rickshaw from the station through dingy lanes and bylanes, the nameplate says Harbhajan Singh Plaha, where not many days ago neighbours had slapped posters after India’s first-round exit in the World Cup. They now rally behind him and mother Avtaar voices support for her son. But this is not a first for Bhajji, whose mouth works faster than his mind.
He had escaped sanctions from the Punjab Cricket Association and the board after telling the media that the then coach Greg Chappell’s strict regime had instilled insecurity among players.
But now that Harbhajan has spent over 10 years with the India team, he is already a senior even if his age does not quite match it. He needs to be a trifle more mature when it comes to handling himself on and off the field and more so in India because he is an icon to a generation that throng the nets in academies all over the country putting in that extra bit every time they fail to turn their doosra.