There's something about English county cricket that brings the best out of Indian players, especially those struggling for motivation and form. When Zaheer Khan faced a form slump in 2005, it was his stint with Worcestershire that helped him turn things around, and become the master of control.
Now, Harbhajan Singh has tried the same route, and if early signs are anything to go by, it might well help him turn things around. Harbhajan's stint with Essex wasn't as spectacular as Zaheer's was with Worcester in 2006, when he took 76 wickets and showed signs of regaining his form.
On Sunday, in his first international for more than a year, Harbhajan claimed four wickets for 12 runs to register India's best bowling performance in Twenty20 internationals.As it was against England, the game was widely followed by the cricket fraternity in Old Blighty too, including Essex coach, Paul Grayson. The former England spinner had extra interest in the India team as he had worked closely with Harbhajan through the summer.
"It was mainly about getting a lot of overs under your belt and that is what we gave him, first with the white ball and then with the red ball," Grayson told the Hindustan Times.
"His confidence improved and his rhythm got better. He was a thorough professional for us, a great influence in the dressing room, and I am happy that he had a good comeback game," added Grayson.
The Harbhajan who turned up at the Premadasa Stadium on Sunday was unrecognizable from the bowler who had played in the Indian Premier League. For Mumbai Indians, he claimed six wickets in 17 matches at a poor average of 64. Dropped from the India team, it was the lowest phase of his career.
It was not that Harbhajan was suddenly sidelined by the national selectors. The axe was wielded after a prolonged form slump. In two Tests in England last year, he had match figures of one for 219 at Lord's and one for 69 at Trent Bridge before he was sidelined due to injury.
When success eluded him, Harbhajan's mindset as a bowler too became defensive and he developed the habit of bowling flat, trying to cramp the batsmen with a leg-stump line. In his glory days, a confident Harbhajan was a great sight as he targetted the batsman's off-stump with flight and bounce.
Asked to explain the changes in the bowler from the start of the season, Grayson said: "Earlier, he was bowling a bit quicker but as he started getting his rhythm right, he started bowling slower and started getting better control over his variations."
Harbhajan owed the transformation to the long spells he got to bowl, said the Essex coach, who singled out the 65 overs he bowled in the match against Glamorgan. When Essex signed on Harbhajan, they didn't know what to expect given that he was in the midst of a poor run.
But a fighting Harbhajan proved it was profitable. In his limited stint, the offie did make an impact, taking 13 wickets in five first-class matches and 11 wickets in five List A games.
Observing the recharged bowler from the best seat in the ground, 'keeper and captain MS Dhoni was impressed.
"I have seen Bhajji bowl better, but his performance, under the circumstance where he was coming back into the team after a period of time, he had to prove that he is good. That brings a certain amount of pressure. It can be his own expectation level, but that desperation was evident. It was important he did well in this game. I don't mean he had to take four wickets, he is someone who can do better than this but if you go by the circumstances it was a brilliant performance by him."
It is his first step in his comeback attempt. With his four for 12 he has sent an early warning to the batsmen. They know, when on a roll, Bhajji can really bite.