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View: The Significance of Harbhajan Singh

When it comes to Indian cricket, a few things are taken for granted. Irrespective of which part of the world the Indian team plays in, it has huge crowd support. And the cashrich nature of the sport in India. Indian cricket players are the highest-paid sports stars in the country and earn considerably more than cricketers from other nations. Some of them feature in the list of the highest-paid sportspersons in the world.

Also, we see an expression of India through the prism of cricket. We don’t need to go beyond 83, the recently released film based on India’s 1983 World Cup win, to make this point. India have some of the best cricketers, the best league, the richest board and the muscle to dominate world cricket.

Each of these features, which define Indian cricket at the moment and have become integral to the game in India, are of fairly recent vintage and can be dated back to the Australia tour of India in 2001. With match-fixing having eaten into the edifice of the sport, world cricket was faced with its biggest crisis in years. Advertisers who had invested huge amounts in the game were left with no option but to move away from cricket.

Cricket, in 2001, needed new oxygen to continue as India’s foremost national passion. Fans’ faith had to be restored and new fans needed to be brought in. That India could continue to express itself through cricket needed to be reinforced. And it was made possible when a 20-year-old decimated the world’s best cricket team. That is the real story of Harbhajan Singh.

The first Test match in Mumbai was evidence of how good the Australians were. Steve Waugh’s team breezed past India inside just three days. Even at the Eden Gardens, all was going to plan for the Australians. At 252/4 on day one, Australia were poised to post a big total. That’s when the story turns to Harbhajan. His hat-trick, first by an Indian, reduced Australia from 252/4 to 252/7. It awakened the massive Kolkata crowd from its slumber.

Suddenly, it was a contest. India had staged a fightback. Unfortunately, for India, though, the tail wagged and S Waugh farmed the strike quite adroitly to take Australia to 445. India were made to follow on. Riding on VVS Laxman’s magical 281 and Rahul Dravid’s heroic 180, India managed to post enough to declare in the morning session of day five, setting Australia a stiff 384-run target.

Harbhajan was bowling the best he has ever bowled in his career and it was a contest every cricket fan would forever cherish. When the Indians dropped S Waugh just at the stroke of tea, it seemed a draw was the most likely result. Moments after tea, however, Harbhajan induced another chance and this time the Indians did not mess up.

Finally, when Harbhajan trapped Glenn McGrath lbw — his 13th wicket of the match —the Eden Gardens erupted with deafening noise. Matchfixing was consigned to the past. Cricket in India had been given a new lease of life and Harbhajan had accomplished a feat few had in world cricket. That the Australians could be beaten was finally a proven reality.

The Indian team went to Chennai for the decider believing that the momentum had turned in their favour. Yet again it was Harbhajan, who stood up for India. A Matthew Hayden double ton notwithstanding, Harbhajan ran through the Australian line-up taking 15 wickets and made sure that a good batting effort was all India needed to set up the match. And when he completed the second run after a nudge to point, it was as if the game had won back everything it had lost.

India, thanks to Harbhajan Singh with the ball, had given back world cricket its greatest attribute: credibility. Seeing full stadiums for Test matches was a serious message for sponsors to return to investing in the game. Cricket had survived the match-fixing scandal and Harbhajan had emerged on the horizon as the new hero. Even in retirement no one can take this away from him — his contribution in giving back the game the credibility it so craved for.

Happy retirement Bhajji!

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