Prior to the current series, Harbhajan had taken 90 wickets in 16 Tests against Australia. He could only take five wickets in two Tests this time. © AFP

“What kind of bowler do you see yourself as now?” a journalist asked Harbhajan Singh about ten months ago. “One who has taken 400 Test wickets or one who can take 150 more?”

It is not clear why Harbhajan chose not to answer the question. He seemed quite perturbed, in fact, by this “ajeeb sawaal (strange query)”. The prickly exchange was dropped from the final cut of the interview.

Harbhajan, who seems increasingly like an impostor of the once incredibly gifted, passionate and competitive bowler, has played three Tests since. This man lives in the past and refers frequently to laurels from a long time ago. He is looking forward to a bit part in a Punjabi film, recently appeared on a dance show, is busy promoting an eponymous sports goods company and launching a sports academy. He also talks of playing “50 more Tests”.

Once among the most feisty and fiery individuals to play for India, this man has new friends — drooping shoulders, a furrowed brow, an upturned mouth. Low on confidence and high on self-doubt, he goes about his business overwhelmed by insecurity and uncertainty, desperate to reclaim form and rhythm, doomed by the fear of failure. Gone are the bark and the bite.

So lost he feels, that this man must hedge heavily on his future and give everything a shot in the frenzied hope that something succeeds. That he played his 101st two weeks ago—in the 15th year of his career—is no guarantee, he knows, that he will have a 102nd.

These days, commentators say, ad nauseam, that this man is a “confidence bowler”. “He must get just one wicket and he is a different bowler” is the next sentence in this script. But the enduring image of Harbhajan from this Test series, against his most preferred rivals, is not from among his five wickets in two Tests, or a tantalising, teasing delivery that foxed a batsman, or even a cameo characterised by flamboyant pull shots and swivelling hips. No, it is not of him being honoured on the morning of his 100th Test in Chennai, or at his home ground in Mohali in the most recent one.

It is the moment he twirled his moustache in tribute to teammate Shikhar Dhawan that will stick in the mind—pranking away on the sidelines after being recalled and dropped for the second time during the home season.

Brought back ostensibly for his record against the Australians – 90 wickets from 16 Tests at 29.35 before the start of the series – Harbhajan has done little to inspire faith, even lesser to hold his place in the side. Critics, relentless in their questioning of his right to replace the highest wicket-taker against England – Pragyan Ojha – have been vindicated. Nor has he done much to allay the speculation of whether it was a milestone Test that warranted his selection to begin with.

This is not how Harbhajan, who takes fierce pride in his craft and talent, wanted this story to go. The man, meant to carry the baton from Anil Kumble in all formats, saw his aspirations crumble as his form floundered. When I interviewed him in Bangalore in 2008, he was closing in on 300 wickets and Kumble’s retirement was imminent. “I will be very disappointed with myself,” he told me, “if I don’t get to at least 500 wickets.” He wanted to get as close as possible, in fact, to Kumble’s 600-plus wickets.

This is a player who, until recently, was strongly backed by his captain and teammates. While reporting Slapgate in 2008, I had several chats with Harbhajan’s teammates in the Indian team and the Mumbai Indians squad. While none of them condoned his behaviour, and were most critical of his hotheaded ways, their loyalty – if it came to choosing sides – lay very firmly with him. As player and person.

To meet the real Harbhajan, then, you must go back to Kolkata in 2010. Under the cosh, yet again, for the missing flight and loop, he emerged with a rousing eight-wicket performance against South Africa to silence his critics.

Not for long. Perhaps, complacency crept in. Perhaps, he never imagined Ravichandran Ashwin would pose a serious threat to his spot in the first XI. Perhaps, he never anticipated his relegation to third-choice spinner, fourth if you count Ravindra Jadeja.

Bowling with Anil Kumble would bring the best out of Harbhajan, who may not have expected to be relegated to the sidelines so soon. © Getty Images

Perhaps he thought the K Srikkanth-led selection panel was unfair to him. Or his captain did not back him enough on and off the field. He would bide his time, play county cricket for Essex and wait for a recall. “Din ke baad raat. Raat ke baad din (night follows day, day follows night),” as he said once, in an interview to a cricket magazine, in 2002.

In his weaker moments, Harbhajan has confessed to his closed circle that the fear of being dropped, persistent self-doubt and constant criticism have affected him much more than he would like to admit. Dropped after the Mumbai Test against England last November, he raged in private about Yuvraj Singh and him being made hapless scapegoats of a poor team performance, about not being given enough overs to bowl, about not receiving adequate support by way of field settings.

If the earlier selection committee procrastinated when it came to taking tough decisions, it is certainly not true of this one. Whether it was axing Yuvraj and Zaheer Khan during the series against England, dropping Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, and working out a fresh opening combination with an eye on the future, these are all a clear signs of selectors planning for tomorrow.

It is the recalling of Harbhajan, then, that does not seem to fit with this line of thinking. Neither the selectors nor MS Dhoni have been transparent in their approach to him. “It is very important to give confidence to Harbhajan, and by not bowling him, obviously, you are sending wrong signals to him,” VVS Laxman said during the Chennai Test. “Especially for someone coming back into the Test team after a long time, he will be low on confidence, he will be a little insecure, and that’s when as a captain you are supposed to encourage your bowler.”

But the team management is in no mood to listen. There are no answers to why he was played ahead of Pragyan Ojha in Chennai. Or retained for the second Test against Australia but dropped for the third. His last one-day appearance for India was nearly two years ago, in June 2011. So what really is Harbhajan’s future given India’s next Test tour is in December against South Africa, where conditions are not exactly suited to his kind of bowling?

In the drama and hype over the openers’ centuries, the dropping of Sehwag, and Dhoni overtaking Sourav Ganguly’s record of most wins by an Indian captain, Harbhajan is the forgotten story of this series — itself an indication of how much things have changed in the India-Australia equation.

Reflecting on his career, Kumble once spoke about how similar yet different the pressures were for him and Sachin Tendulkar. “When Sachin started his career, everyone said he would break all batting records, and when I started my career everyone said I would not play more than two Test matches. Sachin had to spend the rest of his life proving people right, while my entire career was spent on proving people wrong.”

These are the two men Harbhajan admires most, and has spent his 15-year career hoping desperately to emulate. The pity is he hasn’t proved anybody right or wrong. He’s stuck somewhere in the middle.