Durban: Harbhajan Singh took to off-spin out of ďmasti.Ē Today, he is one of the hottest exponents of that art. But, for all his achievements, he accepts much remains to be learnt.
That came through when Harbhajan spoke to The Telegraph at the team hotel (Holiday Inn Elangeni), for over half-an-hour, late Monday.
The following are excerpts
On two years of international cricket since his comeback during that phenomenal series (32 wickets) against Australia
Samay raha hai... Iíve largely met my own and the teamís expectations... Then, in both 2001 and 2002, I finished among the highest wickettakers... Itís been satisfying.
On lessons learnt in this period
Every single day teaches something and thereís a huge difference between the Harbhajan Singh of the past and the Harbhajan Singh of the present... Iím much more confident and have learnt to set targets... To emerge the highest wickettaker in a series, to end the year in the top three... In Tests, I was No. 3 in 2001 (60 wickets, behind Muttiah Muralidharan and Glenn McGrath) and No. 2 in 2002 (63 wickets, behind Shane Warne).
On the phase immediately preceding his comeback
Woh daur bahut kharab tha... I lost my father (Sardev Singh) in 2000, then I was asked to leave the National Cricket Academy... In fact, that year had begun on a dismal note ó I returned from Australia (after the Test series) only to find myself dropped from the North Zone squad... Samajh mein nahin aya... (After a pause, emotionally) As my father was the sole earning member of our family, initially, I even thought of quitting after his death... But I continued because it was his wish that I make a comeback.
On that home series versus Australia
Iím indebted to the captain (Sourav Ganguly)... Had Dada not fought for me, I probably wouldnít have been where I am... Before that series itself, he told me that he would fight tooth and nail to get me back. Kar ke dikha diya... Only, such series come once in a lifetime... Though Iíll be trying, I donít know whether that feat can really be repeated. I would compare my performance with that of Rahul Dravid in England last year. Again, it could be difficult for him to do a repeat (three hundreds in successive Test innings). More than the wickets, I grew in confidence... Woh vishwas aa gaya... Now, when I take the field, I have expectations of my own... I feel itís my responsibility to help the team win.
On whether that success made him impatient in the series immediately after that ó in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka
Yes... Against Australia, I only had to bowl to get wickets, that too whenever the team wanted them. Lekin, waisa hamesha nahin hota... I did get eight wickets in the two Tests in Zimbabwe, but wasnít consistent in Sri Lanka. I put so much pressure on myself.
On learning to be patient
(Smiles) Actually, Sachin Tendulkar helped me. I spoke to him after Sri Lanka (July-August 2001) and the point he made is that even the best had to be patient and that nothing came on a platter. I remember him saying that if cricket was that easy, he would be getting a hundred in every innings... He helped me appreciate that nothing is permanent ó neither the good times nor the bad moments... Helped me get tough mentally. Cricket mein to koi guarantee nahin hai.
On interacting with the record-creating Murali
Iíve had occasions to talk to him... He believes spinners mature with time and cited his own example ó basically, that his present strike-rate is much better than what it was four-five years ago... In other words, experience makes the difference.
On whether his India debut (versus Australia, in Bangalore, 1998) came too early
I was a few months away from my 18th birthday, yes, but I wouldnít say I wasnít prepared. In fact, the earlier the exposure, the better... Thereís more time to grow as a bowler.
On having chosen to become an off-spinner
(Laughs) In the early Nineties, there was one Ruwan Kalpage (of Sri Lanka) who, I thought, turned the ball well... Then, I would see Murali (on the TV)... The way they got it to spin fascinated me. I thought let me also try aur phir gali mein sabko ullu banane ka shauk tha. Thatís how it began... Gali se main ab yahan aa gaya hoon.
On what remains to be learnt
Let me answer it this way: I need to stay calmer and continuously devote time to the game. If I donít give cricket any time (off the field), cricket wonít have time for me. Cricket mujhse door bhag jayega.
On having had to get his action Ďcorrectedí, in late 1998
I was too young to realise what was happening... That came as a jhatka, but I was confident of returning to big-time cricket. (After a pause) Today, I donít wish to look back on that phase.
On often Ďbeatingí Anil Kumble, somebody whom he respects enormously, to the XI
My respect for Anilbhai hasnít diminished... Kharab lagta hai... He has always been very supportive and, when I interact with him, itís not just about bowling ó we talk about cricket in general. (After a pause) Anilbhaiís record is there for all to see, isnít it'
On Shane Warne being banned for a year
If he didnít intentionally take that drug, he should be allowed to play... What has happened is sad.
On deciding to play for Lancashire this summer
I did have an offer from Sussex and even Kent approached me, but I chose Lancs because itís a top County and a number of Asians have recently played there ó Wasim Akram, Murali, Dada... Iím sure Iíll return a better cricketer and person... Wonít I be homesick' Of course, yes, but Iíll have my mother (Avtar Kaur) and youngest sister (Ginni) around in Manchester.
On the effort being put into batting
Iím trying and trying hard... Dada has given me plenty of self-belief ó he keeps saying we wonít ever lose if I can contribute with the bat as well... Accordingly, Iíve been working very hard in the World Cup. Even at nets, I try not to get out.
On whether his stint with Lancashire will help his batting as well
Zaroor... Moreover, Iím sure Iíll bat higher than No. 9.
On the cricketer he respects most
Steve Waugh... Heís my role model... A tremendous fighter with such a big heart... Main unko bahut upar maanta hoon... As they say, he is in a different league. Sachin is very much there but, for me, Steve is the raja.
On the best player of spin
Matthew Hayden... He can attack, he can defend...
On his one on one with Sandy Gordon (in Paarl)
I asked him about handling pressure, my own expectations... In a nutshell, he has asked me to put aside 20 minutes each day (morning or evening) to think about what could and should happen. Besides that, I must be focussed on the job at hand... Should be positive.
Finally, whether he fears failure
No. Jo failure ka taste nahin chakha hai, woh success ka taste kaise chakhega' What separates individuals is how they handle failure... Itís how they move on... Indeed, Iíve learnt from the knocks suffered.