Harbhajan Singh burst on the international scene more than two decades ago. As a modern off-spinner who played a lot of limited overs cricket, he had all the variations. The Turbanator had the rare ability to bowl the doosra back in the days. He also varied his pace and trajectory and immediately got success against the best batsmen in the world.
A slightly front on stance in his delivery stride was unorthodox, but Harbhajan had a classical off spinners loop that impressed the purists. It was this loop that made his variations harder to negotiate.
Twenty years is a long time in international cricket especially with the kind of busy calendar we have these days. You go through injuries, insecurities, poor form, personal issues. For an off-spinner like Harbhajan who relies on rhythm, it's always possible to turn out on the field one day and realise that he no longer has the control on his weaponry.
Every spinner who has played the game knows that if you want to be successful, you have to be prepared to get hit. But Harbhajan took a safety-first approach and his stock delivery, that once used to be the loopy off-break, gave way to flat darts aimed at the leg stump.
Last year, Harbhajan was lucky to be picked in the IPL auction. He was out of contention from international cricket and wasn't playing much first-class cricket. Only one team bid on him and that was Chennai Super Kings. The opportunity to perform again for a different team, under his trusted captain gave Harbhajan another lease of life. With the burden of competing for a spot in the national side off his shoulders, and his personal life settled, the off-spinner came back fresh and fearless.
It was this born again Harbhajan who took the stage against Universe Boss, Chris Gayle last night at Chennai. He had already claimed Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers in the opening game of the season, but that was on a pitch turning square. To get the same results on Saturday, Harbhajan had to rely on his skills.
As he revealed later in the post-match presentation, he came out with a fixed plan against Chris Gayle, another veteran of more than two decades. Harbhajan and Dhoni decided to bowl slow and wide of off stump against Gayle. With a brand new ball in his hand, Harbhajan showed a big heart by throwing it up and putting a lot of revs on the ball. The loop that endeared him to the purists in the late 90s was back, and Gayle was struggling.
With the ball turning square, Gayle played three consecutive dot balls and was starting to struggle with demons of his own. The fourth ball, he attempted a get-out-of-jail bat swing, but could only edge it to Dhoni. Harbhajan and Dhoni were over the moon with the kind of delight you see when your plans come off.
An early wicket in the spell gets every spinner's tail up. For Harbhajan, it turns him into a spin bowling beast. Kings XI Punjab knew right away that they are up against Harbhajan at his best on the night. Next up was Mayank Agarwal, one who doesn't carry the same reputation as some of Harbhajan's previous scalps, but is clearly one of the best players of spin going around.
Mayank had attacked the spinners from the word go during Punjab's beautifully paced chase against Mumbai Indians last week. He had done the same against Nathan Lyon on boxing day in Melbourne. On Saturday night, Harbhajan baited him with a lovely tossed up delivery that had loads of Bhajji trademark overspin imparted on it. Mayank instinctively jumped out of the crease seeing that flight, but the slowness of that ball and the viciousness of the revs on it meant that he could only miscue it as far as deep mid on.
Defending a par total, Chennai now had the early advantage that they desperately needed. Harbhajan went on to bowl his four overs for 17 runs, a spell that turned out to be the difference between the two sides.
Harbhajan bowled at crucial moments in the game. Early on against Punjab's top heavy line up. Then he came back just when a partnership was developing between KL Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan. Punjab needed to get a move on at around the 15th over mark. Harbhajan bowled the 14th and the 16th over and even though he didn't get either of them out, he ensured the required run rate crept up by keeping well set Rahul and Sarfaraz tied.
Harbhajan didn't concede a single boundary on the day, but he didn't achieve that with a defensive mindset. He threw them the challenge and defeated them with his skills and experience.
Chennai Super Kings had made quite a few surprising choices last year at the auction. Shane Watson and Ambati Rayudu were believed to be spent forces at the highest level, but they both turned their careers last year with stellar performances. This year, it has been Harbhajan who has surprised quite a few folks by turning in two man of the match performances in four wins for the men in yellow. In terms of bowling average and economy rate, this has been the Turbanator's best year at the IPL till date. If that continues for the rest of the season, Dhoni and his team should start making more room in their trophy cabinets.