For a man out of reckoning from a place in the Indian team, Harbhajan Singh went ahead and skipped the first five games of Punjab’s Ranji Trophy campaign to spend time with his family.
It was a good indication of the veteran’s psyche — past his prime and heading into the sunset. A man happy with what he has accomplished. A newly married man with a young family, it was only natural for the off-spinner to redefine his priorities.
His average form in the domestic season has ruled out any hope of a dramatic comeback into the Indian team, a feat contemptraries like Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra have proved possible even at the fag end of their careers.
His exclusion from Mumbai Indians’ opening game of the Indian Premier League looked to have sealed his fate. Was Harbhajan Singh no longer the force to be reckoned with? Had the former Mumbai Indians skipper fallen out of favour?
It was the first time in his now ten-year association with Mumbai Indians, that the off-spinner was dropped.
The downward trajectory was becoming increasingly clear, but a champion cricketer cannot remain quiet for long. His talent eventually catches up and shine through, however limited the motivation might be.
On Wednesday, Harbhajan broke the trend and woke up from his slumber, delivering crucial breakthroughs for his side... breakthroughs that eventually paved the way for his team’s comfortable victory.
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Skipper Rohit Sharma surprised the opposition and indeed even experts, when he handed the new ball to the 36-year-old. From being dropped in the first game, to bowling the opening over of a game, Harbhajan had jumped the queue after being pushed down.
He put paid to the confidence shown in him by his skipper, delivering a clinical performance. Bowling to the dangerous opening pair of David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan, Harbhajan made his years of experience count. The left-handed batsmen were cautious against his off-spin initially. Warner did smack him for two boundaries in his second over, but Harbhajan soon found his lenght and came away from his first spell largely unhurt.
It was in his second spell in the 11th over that the weaved his magic. Warner and Dhawan by then had added 80 runs. Warner had begun flexing his muscles and the signs looked ominous. Skittling out the Sunrisers early was essential, considering the wealth of talent in the Sunrisers bowling department that included the likes of Ashish Nehra, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mustafizur Rahman and Afghan sensation Rashid Khan.
As Warner smashed Harbhajan for a six off a perfectly executed switch-hit, the signs did not look good. The Australian opener was all over the Mumbai Indians bowling attack. targeting off-side, Warner was slowly accumulating enough runs from where to launch towards a big score. Placing the ball through the gaps, he was providing the bowlers little room the work with. He looked unbeatable and the signs were ominous.
It was then that Harbhajan turned the game on its head.
Answering the call of duty, Harbhajan delivered with the breakthrough, as he has so often done over the long and decorated career for India and indeed in the IPL for Mumbai Indians, with whom he has played over 125 games.
Harbhajan foxed the dangerous Warner one short of his half-century. The Australian was ready to take the attack to the off-spinner. Following the switch hit he was now aiming to punish the off-spinner with a reverse sweep. But hard-earned experience meant that he would not make the same mistake twice. He slowed down the pace of the ball, deceived Warner and got him mistime the shot and top-edge it. Parthiv Patel took the resulting catch with a brilliant diving effort.
The wicket changed the momentum of the game. It was the turning point, from where Mumbai took the advantage and then never let it slip.
Harbhajan took the subsequent wicket as well after being handed the ball in the 14th over. It was a top-spinner that forced a mishit from Deepak Hooda who committed to a slog early and was caught in the deep by Keiron Pollard.
Sunrisers lost a flurry of wickets from the moment onwards. Soon opener Dhawan had departed, and it was only the matter of time before Mumbai’s astute death bowlers Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah got into the action.
Mumbai managed to restrict Sunrisers to 158. In reply, Mumbai clinched a comfortable victory as Sunrisers’ bowlers struggled to get regular breakthroughs as the batsmen kept creating small partnerships. The dew factor also came into the picture, underlining the importance of Harbhajan’s effort of 2/23 from his four overs.
Skipper David Warner admitted after the game that the team fell a few runs short.
“We needed a better score,” Warner said after the game. “If we sum it up, we were 20-30 short and one of us needed to get a big score.”