In 2001, one of the more astonishing Test series of the modern era played out. Astonishing, mainly because of the unexpected manner in which things turned; astonishing because of the unexpected quality of the cricket; astonishing because of how badly each cricketer on those teams wanted to win.

Australia were pretty much unstoppable then – they were seemingly breaking records each time they set foot on the field. It was a side filled with match-winners. Michael Slater, Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Ricky Pointing, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Michael Kasprowicz, Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath.

Between August 1999 and February 2001, Australia won 16 straight Tests – no losses, no draws... 16 straight wins. The great West Indies side of the 1980s had managed 11 on the trot.

In comparison, India were good (at home) but not great. They were a side on the rise, filled with young talent. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid were the better-known batsmen. SS Das, Sadagoppan Ramesh, VVS Laxman not so much. The bowling, with Anil Kumble missing due to injury, was weak and they kept trying to find the right combination through the series.

India’s bowling line-ups in that series:

First Test: Ajit Agarkar, Javagal Srinath, Harbhajan Singh and Rahul Sanghvi.

Second Test: Zaheer Khan, Venkatesh Prasad, Harbhajan Singh and Venkatpathy Raju.

Third Test: Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Nilesh Kulkarni and Sairaj Bahutule.

The first Test in Mumbai was a blowout. Australia won by 10 wickets. Adam Gilchrist’s century (122 off 112 balls), in the first innings when Australia were in trouble at 99/5, changed the game. The 20-year-old Harbhajan Singh whose cause had been championed by Sourav Ganguly in the selection meeting delivered with seven wickets in the match.

Now, Harbhajan was known to be a talented bowler but with Kumble missing, Ganguly was on the lookout for match-winners. The other spinners were good but they had always played a supporting role to Kumble.

“I believed in match-winners,” Ganguly later said in an interview to India Today. “I believed in flamboyant players who were fearless. That’s the only way you can win matches. I never played for a draw. It’s either you lose or you win. There is nothing in between.”

But neither Ganguly nor coach John Wright were sure how things were going to turn out. Against a team like Australia, how could they have been?

The second Test at the Eden Gardens is remembered as arguably the greatest fightback in the history of the sport.

Having bowled India out for just 171 in their first innings, Steve Waugh opted to enforce the follow-on early on day three. The tourists held a 274-run lead and it very much looked like the series would end on Day 4.

India slumped to 3-115 and then 4-232 in their second innings, needing another 42 runs just to make Australia bat for a second time. Forget a win, even a draw was a long shot.

But VVS Laxman, who averaged just 27 with the bat before the match began, and Rahul Dravid produced an extraordinary partnership of 376, batting for the entirety of day four.

The impact of the partnership was great but without a result to back it up, it wouldn’t have counted as much. And that is where Harbhajan once again stepped up. With no other Indian bowler making an impression, Ganguly virtually refused to take the off-spinner out of the attack.

Set 384 to win in little more than two sessions on day five, Australia began well through Hayden and Slater until the wickets started to tumble and the crowd started to get louder. In the second innings, Harbhajan bowled 30.1 overs, claimed 6 wickets and helped India halt Australia’s record-winning streak at 16. His performance made Ganguly appreciate the youngster’s effort even more.

“They say it’s love at first sight. And when I saw Harbhajan bowl at Eden, picking up 14 wickets it was love at first sight for a cricketer who I believed would go on to change things for Indian cricket,” said Ganguly.

The young off-spinner from Punjab saved his best for the last Test. He had already claimed 17 wickets in the first two Tests but now with the series on the line, he claimed match figures of 15/217.

In the first innings, Australia had reached 340-3 before Harbhajan got his act together. It resulted in a full-blown collapse, as Australia tumbled to 391 all out, with the off-spinner claiming 7/133.

In the second, he was simply unplayable as he ended up with figures of 8/84. Harbhajan was picked because he could bowl long spells but he also showed himself to be a bowler who can run through sides once he gets on a roll.

The table below shows just how dominant Harbhajan was in the series. The next highest in the wickets column after Harbhajan’s 32 were Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, who claimed three each. During the series, the off-spinner bowled 178.3 overs, the next highest was Zaheer Khan with 55.4 overs. And this was all done against one of the greatest teams the game has seen.

2001 Ind vs Aus Test series

Player Mat Overs Wkts Ave
Harbhajan Singh 3 178.3 32 17.03
AB Agarkar 1 13.0 2 29.00
J Srinath 1 18.0 2 38.50
RL Sanghvi 1 12.2 2 39.00
SR Tendulkar 3 48.0 3 50.33
SV Bahutule 1 30.0 2 51.00
Z Khan 2 55.4 3 63.00
SC Ganguly 3 17.2 1 65.00
SLV Raju 1 35.0 1 116.00
NM Kulkarni 1 53.0 1 137.00
BKV Prasad 1 33.0 0 -

India’s great individual performances

India has had some pretty great individual performances in the past. On the batting front, few can forget Sunil Gavaskar’s 774 runs on debut in the West Indies. This wasn’t the West Indies team at its peak but for a young batsman making his debut, it was a pretty amazing performance. It helped that Gavaskar found an able ally in Dilip Sardesai, who chipped with 642 runs in the series.

Gavaskar takes the second spot too in the table below with another great series against the West Indies. But it was in a series with tracks that were great for batting. Of the six Tests, five were drawn and one was won by India.

Of the younger lot, Virat Kohli has shown that he can dominate a series like few others (against Australia in 2014-’15 and England in 2016-’17). Great performances no doubt but he had support in both instances and India were never really under the pump in either series.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s performance during India’s victorious tour of Australia last time round deserves a mention but it was clearly an Australian team that was not at its best. Still, the manner in which the Saurashtra batsman blunted the edge of the strong Australian attack was admirable.

Most runs in a series by an Indian cricketer

Player Series Mat Runs HS Ave 100 50
SM Gavaskar India in West Indies, 1970/71 4 774 220 154.80 4 3
SM Gavaskar West Indies in India, 1978/79 6 732 205 91.50 4 1
V Kohli Border-Gavaskar Trophy (India in Australia), 2014/15 4 692 169 86.50 4 1
V Kohli England in India, 2016/17 5 655 235 109.16 2 2
DN Sardesai India in West Indies, 1970/71 5 642 212 80.25 3 1

From a bowling point of view, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar tops the charts with his 35 wickets in a five Test series when England toured India in 1972-’73. Chandra was simply unplayable at times but this was a very inexperienced England side with many veterans choosing to stay at home.

Vinood Mankad’s 34-wicket haul combined with his 223 runs against England in 1951-’52 showcased his all-round talents but the series ended in a draw with both teams winning one Test each. Subhash Gupte also produced a superb show against New Zealand in 1955-’56.

Harbhajan, as against everyone else in the list, took his wickets in a three-Test series and against one of the greatest teams ever. And he did it by attacking the most attacking side the world has ever seen. Australia were a team of battle-hardened veterans and they were on course to sweep India too. But an inspired show by a young 20-year-old put their hopes of world domination to rest.

Kapil Dev’s haul of 32 wickets against Pakistan in 1979-’80 was an impressive show too. It was a pretty strong Pakistan outfit but they were perhaps shocked and surprised by the young fast bowler’s quality. His 32 wickets placed him far ahead of the other bowlers in the series.

Most wickets in a series by an Indian cricketer

Player Series Mat Wkts BBI BBM Ave Econ SR
BS Chandrasekhar England in India, 1972/73 5 35 8/79 9/107 18.91 2.27 49.9
MH Mankad England in India, 1951/52 5 34 8/55 12/108 16.79 1.53 65.4
SP Gupte New Zealand in India, 1955/56 5 34 7/128 9/145 19.67 1.87 62.9
Harbhajan Singh Border-Gavaskar Trophy (Australia in India), 2000/01 3 32 8/84 15/217 17.03 3.05 33.4
N Kapil Dev Pakistan in India, 1979/80 6 32 7/56 11/146 17.68 2.67 39.7

Harbhajan, the greatest

Two main factors go into making Harbhajan’s performance the greatest individual performance by an Indian in a Test series.

One, he was a 20-year-old who was facing one of the greatest teams in Test cricket. He was a youngster making a comeback and it would have been okay for him to be nervous or even intimidated. But instead, he seemed to get stronger with almost every match and by the end, it was the Aussies who seemed to be intimidated by him. He never took a step back.

Two, he had almost no support on the wicket-taking front. His workload was enormous but not once did he complain. This was Harbhajan at his finest, dismantling a great team almost single-handedly.

Most wickets in a three-Test series

Player Series Wkts Average Strike-rate
G A Lohmann  England in South Africa, 1895/96 35 5.80 14.8
SF Barnes South Africa in England, 1912 34 8.29 22.5
Richard Hadlee Trans-Tasman Trophy (New Zealand in Australia), 1985/86 33 12.15 30.8
Harbhajan Singh Border-Gavaskar Trophy (Australia in India), 2000/01 32 17.03 33.4
M Muralitharan Zimbabwe in Sri Lanka, 2001/02 30 9.80 40.6

And there really is no comparison to this sort of performance in Indian cricket. We all remember the magical Laxman-Dravid partnership and Ganguly’s fearless captaincy but at the end of the day, it really wouldn’t have counted for much without Harbhajan’s stunning haul in the series.

It is perhaps right to say that Indian cricket began a new innings after the Australia series in 2001 and perhaps in the same vein, it is right to say that Harbhajan deserves a huge share of the credit for it.

All statistics courtesy ESPNCricinfo