Harmeet Singh's dramatic arc: from young star to villain to a hero's return

Harmeet Singh celebrates a wicket Matt Roberts / © Getty Images

Harmeet Singh's life might make for a Bollywood script. A spinner who was likened to Bishan Bedi as a youngster, faced rejection and controversy in the prime of his career, and went on to get a second chance and a new life in the United States.

In early 2020, his stop-start career received a lease of life when American Cricket Enterprises, the organisation that partnered with USA Cricket to run Major League Cricket (MLC), offered him and a bunch of other subcontinental players multi-year contracts. Four years on, he is renewing his career with his adopted country at the T20 World Cup 2024.

"Even thinking about a World Cup from a situation where all club cricketers were practising indoors [during the pandemic]… and from there to suddenly beat Pakistan, it is a big deal," Harmeet says on Zoom from New York, two days before USA faced India in the tournament. "The goal was to play the World Cup for your country and win it, which couldn't happen [for India] for whatever reasons. But I'm trying to live my own dream in a different way."

Harmeet, a left-arm spinning allrounder, arrived in the USA just before the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020, but had to quickly put cricket on the back burner until lockdown and travel restrictions were lifted. In this period, he moved to multiple cities - Atlanta, Houston, Seattle - and worked odd jobs.

It wasn't until mid-2021, when cricket restarted, that he began to make a mark. Even as the launch date of the first MLC season kept getting postponed, Harmeet put in compelling performances in minor league cricket and supplemented his club earnings with part-time coaching gigs.

In March 2023, Harmeet became the first pick in the domestic-player draft for the inaugural MLC when Seattle Orcas (co-owned by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella) signed him for US$75,000. He picked up seven wickets in seven games at a thrifty economy of 7.13 in Orcas' runners-up finish.

Even before that, Harmeet had turned in impressive performances, most notably leading Seattle Thunderbolts to the Minor League Cricket T20 championship in August 2022. These, and the fact that he had fulfilled the three-year residency criterion, were the springboard for his international debut with USA in June 2024.

In his fifth international match, he struck an unbeaten 13-ball 33 to help beat Bangladesh. At the World Cup, he has been part of the XI in their wins over Canada and Pakistan that took them through to the Super Eight. USA's performance at this World Cup has allowed them direct entry into the next edition, in 2026.

Harmeet can't quite believe how things have transformed in American cricket in such a short period. "When I moved to the US, there was no proper practice facility [in Atlanta]. There were zero turf wickets to play on. There were only concrete surfaces. The outfields were maybe ten times more sluggish than what you saw in New York [during the T20 World Cup]. So the challenges were very, very different."

Earlier this week, Harmeet might well have added another page to his unlikely story in USA's Super Eight clash against South Africa in Antigua. After he dismissed Quinton de Kock and David Miller for figures of 2 for 24, Harmeet hit 38 off 22 balls from No. 7 to put USA in a position to cause another upset. But his dismissal when they needed 28 off the last two overs crushed their hopes. However, even in defeat, USA had sounded a warning to the other teams that they can't be taken lightly.

"I said it at our first [team] meeting, that we're going to surprise ourselves at this World Cup," Harmeet says. "We're not worried about the results. We've been right up there with our body language. We've been right up there on the attitude."

"I did not even get a chance to fail"
Eleven years ago, his life had looked vastly different. One day in June 2013, Harmeet woke up to rumours that he had been suspended by the BCCI. During an enquiry by the Delhi police into the IPL spot-fixing scandal that year, a bookie had revealed that Harmeet, then contracted to Rajasthan Royals, had been one of their targets.

The 20-year-old was questioned in the matter and subsequently exonerated. The BCCI never actually suspended him, but the investigation caused problems for his already flagging career.

"I didn't get the feeling of having someone with me [as support] at that point," Harmeet says of the period when his name cropped up in the spot-fixing controversy. "Also, I bore the consequences of not having good PR skills. When I look back now, I could have easily sued a few publications or gone after some people because there was so much misinformation about me.

"So much wrong reporting was happening at that point, especially during the IPL. And my name was dragged into it for so many reasons. Eventually nothing surfaced. I faced no ban, suspension, nothing. But there were a few publications that went on for a year, saying 'Harmeet is suspended pending inquiry.' It just kept tarnishing my image."

Harmeet broke through in the 2009-10 Ranji Trophy season and picked up 12 wickets in his first two games. Straight off his U-19 World Cup success in 2012 he was drafted into the West Zone squad for the Duleep Trophy on the recommendation of Sandeep Patil, the national selector then. Harmeet's figures in the match against North Zone read 44.4-5-147-2.

"The perception around him took a U-turn after that performance," a senior Mumbai coach says. "Everyone's opinion was unanimous. That Harmeet had a long way to go. There were three other left-arm spinners: Vishal Dabholkar, Ankeet Chavan and Iqbal Abdulla, who were doing well. How could he have overtaken all of them? He was talented, but very raw. He also may have been swayed away by that early fame. It took him some time to come out of that."

Harmeet managed just one more game in the three seasons following his debut. His career appeared to have hit a dead end when his name cropped up in relation to the spot-fixing scandal.

"I was always the kind of guy who used to be like, 'Oh, don't worry, my performances will talk,'" he says. "But I did not get a chance to perform anywhere. And the media was just writing, writing and writing.

"The game I got at the end of the 2014-15 season - I picked up a four-wicket haul in Baroda. And I thought I'll take off once again, but next year, I was out again.

"Those four to five years of no first-class cricket for your home state, and you are at your peak - I would say I did not even get a chance to fail. If I had gotten chances and failed, I would have taken it on my chin."

Harmeet tried to switch sides to Vidarbha ahead of the 2013-14 season, but the offer of a two-year contract that had been made to him was withdrawn because he had not till then been given a clean chit in the spot-fixing case by the BCCI. By the time it came, the season had begun. He admits to feeling lost during this period. "I did not have a very good, solid mentor. I lacked a lot of things because my family also did not have a cricketing background."

As a spinner, Harmeet had the ability to impart revolutions on the ball, and he was not afraid to challenge the batter with loop and drift. Ian Chappell, one of the game's most astute observers, was impressed by his bowling at the 2012 U-19 World Cup and said he was ready for an international call-up right away. "A cricketer like Harmeet will stagnate if he's left for too long at a lower level, because that leads to sloppy habits," Chappell wrote on this website back then. "Harmeet is ready to be considered for national selection."

But here he was, struggling even to break into Mumbai's second XI. "I was playing at Shivaji Park Gymkhana [in this period]. Ian Chappell doesn't have access to the gymkhana to know what this guy is doing. He rightly said that anyone [in these circumstances] will stagnate. I can now relate to young talent - in India, USA or wherever - if you don't give him proper opportunities, he's bound to stagnate. And that's what happened.

"Now, I'm getting the opportunities and exposure, but it's not served on a platter. I worked for it and got this opportunity, but you know, at that point, I needed one first-class season, which I did not get."

"I did not kill people. I did not run over people"
By the start of 2018, Harmeet had played only 14 first-class and four white-ball games since he first broke through nearly nine years before. That included a stint with Jammu & Kashmir, which had not gone very well either.

In 2017, when he returned to Mumbai and served out a cooling-off period, required for players looking to switch sides, before he could try to resume playing for his home team, he was in a dark place. In a bizarre incident, he drove his car onto the platform of a Mumbai suburban railway station. Eyewitnesses have different versions - some said he was intoxicated - but Harmeet insisted he was en route to training when he was misled by people around him while taking a diversion.

He argues that a mere traffic violation was blown out of proportion. "When the railway [platform] incident happened, I was not playing any cricket, so what business did anyone have [to tarnish my image]? Yes, I can be a small public figure, but you can't hold that against me. I wasn't with any team. I wasn't with anybody at that point. And it was a traffic violation. I did not kill people. I did not run over people."

Harmeet moved his cricketing base to Tripura in the north-east in 2018, but playing for a significantly weaker team gave him little joy. A sense of helplessness prompted him to explore opportunities elsewhere. In late 2019, when he received the offer from the USA, he took the leap of faith.

"America, at that point, was not everybody's cup of tea, especially if a professional athlete wanted to move," he says. "Corey [Anderson] had his family here, so he made that move. But I think the guys who made the move from India [Unmukt Chand and Milind Kumar among them] at that point were really brave.

"And we bought into the dream we were sold at that point that America will have its own league, its own domestic structure, in three years' time it will host a World Cup and you guys will be qualified to play and all of that (laughs). It was just too good to be true at that point, but at the end of the day we sort of accomplished everything."

"There's always been a point to prove"
At the start of this World Cup, the profile photo on Harmeet's player page on ESPNcricinfo was from his U-19 days. Facing us on the Zoom call is a man in his early 30s, a father of two young children. The beard is thicker and his words are well thought out. You can sense he is disappointed his career didn't pan out the way he would have liked it to.

"The guys who are currently playing for India - Axar [Patel] and Kuldeep [Yadav] - we played U-19 together. So there's the feeling that, oh, I could have been there [playing for India]. At that point I was far ahead of both of them as well. I got picked for the [U-19] World Cup [2012], Axar didn't.

"If you see Axar or Kuldeep, see how the state has backed them, just check out their games in first-class - I'm sure they have played [lots of games]. That's where you become a player and that's where your true potential comes out after a couple of seasons.

"Then you understand, oh, I need to work on my fitness, on my shoulder, or need to gain more strength. Because only then you know that's the toil I need to go through, this is what technically, or mentally, physically, I need to work on. Then when you are in the system, the onus is on you to work hard and reap the rewards."

Having got the opportunity to play international cricket now, Harmeet is content, but he says he has some things on his agenda to tick off. "There's always been a point to prove that all my team-mates are playing cricket, and I'm not. It did not matter to me what cricket I'm playing because my love for the game would never change but in my heart, I've always wanted to be at the top, playing cricket against the best."

"It was my mother's dream that I played at the highest level"
In 2021, Harmeet faced the most difficult time of his life so far when he lost his mother, Paramjit Kaur, to Covid. Due to the global travel ban in force at the time, he had to watch her funeral online from the US. He talks of how she and his father, Jasbir, never hesitated to make decisions that put his cricketing ambitions ahead of everything else.

Jasbir has been unable to be at the 2024 World Cup because of a chronic health issue, but he was the one who decided to move the family to Borivali in northern Mumbai so Harmeet could attend Swami Vivekananda International School (where Rohit Sharma studied), which he was told would be good for his son's cricketing future.

"My father sold his house without even knowing what talent I possess. Someone just said, 'Oh, he is talented, take him to this school' and he just did it in a flash. Now, being a father myself, if I'm asked to do it for my kids, it takes a lot of guts to be able to think on those lines, but he took that decision then."

His mother also played a big part in his cricketing journey.

"The toil Mom had with me - every day taking me to Shivaji Park Gymkhana [over 20km from where they lived] and then coming back in peak hours in the Mumbai local [trains], I can never forget that. She lived the dream with me and it was her dream that I play at the highest level. Till I played Ranji Trophy, she would travel with me everywhere. Wherever she is, she will be very happy. And I know she is blessing us all from there."