He was nervous even before a ball had been bowled. Actually, Harbhajan Singh was not even sure if he would find a place in the Indian team for the series against Australia. “It was a tough phase of my cricket career. I am glad it came in the early part of my cricket because it kind of steeled me. When I look back, I thank all the selectors and captain (Sourav Ganguly) for having faith in me. It was surreal, but it was delightful to be part of that epic win at Kolkata. To claim a hat-trick was the icing on the cake for me,” Harbhajan told Sportstar as he relived that magical day 20 years ago.
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As a 21-year-old, Harbhajan was learning the nuances of international cricket when Steve Waugh came with his team to conquer the “Final Frontier.” A Test series win in India was Waugh’s dream and he had taken a firm step towards achieving it by winning the first Test in Mumbai. Harbhajan had lost his place in the Indian team and was unsure of winning the support of the national selectors. When he was given the opportunity, he grabbed it with four wickets at Mumbai. His victims were Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist.
“I was fighting for survival in Mumbai. The four wickets gave me all the confidence that I needed. At least they won’t drop me, and that was a pretty nice feeling going into the Test at Eden Gardens. It was such a relief and helped me give my best. The hat-trick happened at the right time for me,” said Harbhajan.
Ponting, Gilchrist and Shane Warne were the hat-trick wickets for Harbhajan, who cast a mesmerising spell. He presented a lively sight, gripping the ball tightly, breaking into a stride that showed his enthusiasm and confidence, and releasing the ball in an arc that left the batsmen in many minds. “The ball came out of the hand nicely that day and landed precisely where I aimed at. I could experiment with my length and line to keep the batsmen guessing. I think I got everything right that day.”
'Hats off to Laxman, Dravid'
Seven wickets in the first innings and six in the second made Harbhajan a key component of the victory where V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted their way into history. “When we got Australia for 349 in the first innings, we knew the batsmen would have to take over the responsibility. The first innings collapse left us red-faced and a defeat loomed large, but hats off to Laxman and Dravid. They gave Indian cricket the fresh lease it so badly needed and I was happy to play a part in it,” gushed Harbhajan, who claimed seven for 123 and six for 73.
Standing behind the stumps, Nayan Mongia observed the change in Harbhajan’s approach. “He was so confident that first day. He was constantly changing the line and length and importantly was getting the drift. The ‘doosra’ was his weapon and he was able to get it right on the clay-soil pitch. He got the ball to skid and baffle the batsmen. It was a joy keeping wickets to him,” he recalled.
Harbhajan has vivid and fond memories of that match. “I can talk in detail about each session. How can I forget that match which made my career? The hat-trick was a nice gift for me, but the batting by Laxman and Dravid was unforgettable. They set it up for us bowlers. We were a little cagey regarding when to declare on the final day because we were sure the Australians would go for the target. You can see that they made an attempt,” he said.
It was a rare match where Harbhajan bowled with an attacking field from the first ball. “I had men in catching positions right through and that encouraged me to go after the batsmen. I was not worried about being hit for runs. I had to create chances and snare the batsmen. I enjoyed the role of an attacking bowler in that Test. For me, it was a survival series. Do or die. I may have lost my place had I not performed.”
The Australians were outfoxed regardless of how they played – front foot or back foot. The ball shot off the pitch, skidding to make their stay at the crease a misery, and Harbhajan thrived. “My game was in my control. I wanted to win the game for India and personal gains did not matter at all. In fact, I was thrilled to bowl in the second innings and things worked in my favour. To get the Australians was a fantastic feeling.”
Harbhajan was gracious in sharing the limelight. “I can never forget the support of the close-in fielders. That catch by (Sadagoppan) Ramesh (at backward short leg) to dismiss Warne for the hat-trick wicket was unbelievable. People forget Sachin’s (Tendulkar) three wickets. They were so crucial. Those three wickets (of Hayden, Gilchrist and Warne) were as big as any other wicket on the final day.”
Memories of the match have lasted and Harbhajan has quite a few souvenirs from it, too. “The whole kit bag, a stump, the ball, and even the wornout socks with holes in it,” he said. And one more precious possession that came after the victory. “It is an appreciation letter from then Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”