Harbhajan Singh was called in to play for the Indian Board President's XI against the touring Australian team before the 1997-98 Test series. Due to his poor performance in the practice match, he was excluded from the first two Test matches. When he made his international debut in the third Test on March 25, 1998, he managed to take only one wicket. While he was ignored for the home series between India, Australia and Zimbabwe, he made his ODI debut against New Zealand in Sharjah in April.
Singh struggled to perform after his debut in 1998 and was subsequently kept out of the team for some time before returning to play in the Singer Trophy. He took eight wickets in six matches, including just one in the final. Thereafter, he was omitted from the Sahara Cup squad but he represented India at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
The series against Zimbabwe during the 1998-99 season was his last ODI appearance for India in more than two years, following which he returned to domestic cricket. During the 1999 home series against New Zealand, he took 4/91 for the Board President's XI and was retained for the subsequent Test series. He managed to take six wickets in two matches.
In 2001, Singh got a surprise call from captain Sourav Ganguly who asked him to lead the spin attack against Australia in the 2001 Border-Gavaskar Trophy as Anil Kumble was injured. Singh had a dream series as he took 32 wickets that helped India win by 2-1. Apart from being named 'Man of the Series,' he also became the first Indian to take a Test hat-trick.
In 2001, Singh failed to perform in ODIs against Australia and Zimbabwe, but managed to take 11 wickets in seven matches on Sri Lanka’s spin-friendly wicket. Later, playing in a Test match against England at his home ground Mohali, he took 7/110, including 5/51 in the first innings. It was followed by another five-wicket haul in the next match.
He performed well during India’s tour of Zimbabwe in 2001, but injured himself in West Indies in mid-2002 where he struggled to take wickets except in the final match, in which he took eight. Later, he performed moderately in Test matches against England, the NatWest Series and the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka.
His performance improved in the Test series against the West Indies held in India. He became the 'Man of the Series' with 20 wickets and 69 runs in his kitty. He performed consistently in the 2003 World Cup, taking 11 wickets with an economy rate of 3.92.
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Singh sustained a finger injury during the World Cup 2003, but decided to delay the surgery and instead use physiotherapy to manage his pain. However, as his form continued to deteriorate, he eventually had to undergo a major surgery which sidelined him for seven months.
Returning from rest, Harbhajan regained his form while representing India in the Asia Cup in July 2004 and the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy. He returned to Test during the home series against Australia and performed well both with ball and bat, but failed to save his team from a 2-1 loss.
His form again declined during the end of the season, and he spent the off-season playing for English county club Surrey to improve his performance. He came under pressure after publicly attacking new coach Greg Chappell and defending captain Ganguly in one of the worst controversies of Indian cricket. Thereafter, he put on strong performances in both Test and ODI matches against Sri Lanka in 2005.
Singh started struggling with his form in 2006 and was dropped after failing to perform in the 2007 World Cup. He however helped India win the ICC World Twenty20 tournament. Throughout the season, he gave many match-winning performances to become the leading wicket-taker for India in 2008, and the third-highest in the world.
During a test match in the 2007-08 Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia, Singh exchanged a few words with Aussie all-rounder Andrew Symonds. Symonds alleged that Singh had called him a monkey – a racially-charged insult. Singh was banned from three matches and Indian team threatened to pull out of the series. However, India went on to win the series by 2-1 and Singh’s ban was lifted.
He performed moderately in the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup and India exited early from that series. He also struggled in the 2009 ICC Champions Trophy, but regained form in the 2010 season. He was in the World Cup-winning Indian team in 2011, but due to an injury, he was not included in the subsequent series.
He next focused on IPL and led Mumbai Indians to 2011 Champions League Twenty20 title as the captain. His performance in IPL in 2014-2015 secured him a comeback to international cricket, which he utilized to overtake Wasim Akram’s tally to become the ninth highest wicket-taker in Tests.
In 2015, He was chosen Indian Test squad against Sri Lanka. He was later called in to replace injured allrounder Ravichandran Ashwin for the ODI series against South Africa. Singh next participated in three T20 matches against Australia, a T20 series against Sri Lanka on home turf and the 2016 Asia Cup (T20) that took place in Bangladesh. He was also selected for the T20 World Cup 2016 in India. While he was being selected in the Indian team for many series, he rarely featured in the playing 11.
He was dropped from the Indian team that was touring England for 2017 Champions Trophy. Upon hearing about his exclusion, Singh is believed to have said that he was “not getting the same privileges that other veteran cricketers, namely MS Dhoni, have been afforded by the national selectors.” His statement caused quite a bit of controversy in the Indian cricket arena.