After experiencing pains in his spinning finger during the World Cup, Harbhajan was scheduled to undergo surgery in mid-2003 in Australia, but the surgery was delayed as he sought to play through the pain. He underwent physiotherapy in lieu of surgery and was declared fit for a two-match Test series at home against New Zealand in late-2003. His performance was substantially worse than his previous displays on Indian soil, taking only six wickets at an average of 50.00 as both matches ended in high-scoring draws. Aside from his debut series, it was his worst series bowling average on Indian soil. Despite a triangular ODI series against New Zealand and Australia in which he managed only four wickets at 40.50 in four matches and spent time in the sidelines, the Indian team attempted to manage his injury rather than have his finger operated on, and took him on the 2003–04 tour of Australia. As with his previous visit four years earlier, Harbhajan had an unhappy time, taking 2/159 in a tour match against Victoria. After an ineffective 1/169 in the First Test at Brisbane, his injury deteriorated and he underwent major finger surgery, sidelining him for a predicted five months. Kumble replaced him and took 24 wickets in the remaining three Tests in strak contrast of Harbhajan's struggles in Australia. Kumble bowled India to victory in the following Test against Pakistan in Multan, taking 6/71 to reclaim his position as the No. 1 spinner.
After a seven-month layoff, Harbhajan returned to represent India in ODIs in the Asia Cup in July 2004, where he took four wickets at 39.75 in four matches at 3.97 runs per over. His performance improved on the tour to England for an ODI series against England and the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy, taking eight wickets at 14.00, conceding only 2.80 runs an over, including 3/28 against England and 3/33 against Kenya and hitting as an unbeaten 41 against England at The Oval as India's batting collapsed to a substantial defeat.
Harbhajan made his Test return against Australia, who were again seeking their first series win on Indian soil since 1969 in the late 2004 home series. Harbhajan took 5/146 in the first innings and 6/78 in the second innings in addition to making a run out to reduce Australia from 103/3 to 228 all out. Despite this, India required 457 in their second innings to win, slumping to 125/8 before Harbhajan (42) and Irfan Pathan helped India to reach 239 after a rearguard counterattack, still a 217-run loss. Harbhajan was less effective in the drawn Second Test in Chennai, with match figures of 5/198, which was washed out with India still needing 210 more runs on the last day with all ten wickets in hand. Harbhajan then withdrew from the Third Test in Nagpur due to illness. Australia won the match easily, clinching the series. Harbhajan returned for the final Test in Mumbai. After failing to take a wicket in the first innings, he claimed 5/29 in the second to help India bowl Australia out for 93 and claim a dramatic 14-run victory. Harbhajan ended the series with 21 wickets at 24.00 and 69 runs at 13.80.
A Test series in India against South Africa followed, with Harbhajan taking match figures of 4/166 in the drawn First Test in Kanpur, before producing a man of the match performance in the Second Test in Calcutta to lead India to a 1–0 series win. After taking 2/54 in the first innings, he took 6/78 in the second, including South Africa's first five batsman to help dismiss the tourists for 222. This set up a run-chase of 117, which India reached with eight wickets in hand. Harbhajan was the leading wicket-taker for the series, with 13 victims at an average of 23.61. He ended 2004 with a quiet tour of Bangladesh, scoring a 47 in the Second Test and taking four wickets at 41.75 in two Tests and one wicket at 94 at an economy rate of 5.22 in two ODIs. He had a relatively light workload, bowling only 47.4 overs in the Tests, as Irfan Pathan frequently scythed through the Bangladeshi batsmen with the new ball, taking three five wicket hauls. He then returned to India and took a total of 6/172 in North Zone's seven-wicket win over South.
His performance in Bangladesh saw him dropped for the First Test in the early 2005 series against Pakistan on his home ground in Mohali, with Kumble being the only spinner selected on the pace-friendly surface. India were in control of the match for four days, and needed only four wickets on day five, but were unable to break the Pakistani lower-order until play was almost over and the tourists had taken a lead, and the match ended in a draw. Harbhajan was recalled for the Second Test in Calcutta and took match figures of 4/145 in an Indian victory. Despite taking 6/152 in a marathon 51-over spell in the first innings of the Third Test in Bangalore, Pakistan won the match to level the series after India collapsed on the final day. Harbhajan finished the series with 10 wickets at 33.20. His performance in the subsequent ODI series was even worse, managing only three wickets at 73.66 in five matches at an economy rate of 4.80. In spite of the poor end to the season, his performance in the year since finger surgery in the long form of the game saw him nominated for the 2005 ICC Test Player of the Year. Harbhajan spent the international off-season playing for Surrey in English county cricket, citing the improvement that other international players had gained from such an experience. It was his first stint in county cricket, after a planned season at Lancashire in 2003 was cancelled due to injury. After taking six wickets in his opening two first-class fixtures, he struck form against Hampshire, taking 6/36 and 2/47 in an innings triumph. In is fourth and final first-class match, against Gloucestershire, Harbhajan took a total of 6/193 and equalled his previous first-class best of 84. He ended with 20 wickets at 25.85 and 124 runs at 31.00. In the Twenty20 competition, he had less success in the new format, taking four wickets at 38.00 at an economy rate of 6.60 in eight matches. In all he spent six weeks with the county.
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