‘Chappell was a disaster. He was after Sachin. He wanted Sachin to retire’
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Harbhajan Singh: That was my comeback series and in that game, I think I was the only bowler who took four wickets, so I was the only survivor among the spinners. So, Mumbai city has not just given me joy but that match gave me the chance to play in the next game.
Shekhar Gupta: Bhajji, that was a time of crisis for you. I have heard that before that series, you were thinking of leaving cricket for Canada or America and driving a bus or something. Is that just a story?
Harbhajan Singh: That was a very difficult time for me, because they had taken me off the National Cricket Academy.
Shekhar Gupta: Why did they remove you?
Harbhajan Singh: Because I had complained about the food there. They had a diet chart that listed out the nutrients we should have, but the food we got didn't have a single thing that was on the chart. I tried complaining in vain to the people in charge. So one day I got angry and tore the chart. That was the biggest mistake I made. Anyway, that was why I was removed from the NCA. When I went home, my dad was ill. He was hospitalised and then he passed away. I did not know what to do because I was out of the academy. There were some selectors who did not want me to play cricket, they wanted me to stay back in Jalandhar. And there was one selector who even took my trial by himself. He would wear pads and come to bat at the nets and say that if you can bowl me out, you are in.
Shekhar Gupta: So, did you manage to bowl out that selector?
Harbhajan Singh: On many occasions. I don't know how he qualified for a position in the Indian team.
Shekhar Gupta: This particular selector, was he right-handed or left?
Harbhajan Singh: I don't know, but the way he was batting right-handed, it did not look as if he was right-handed.
Shekhar Gupta: So, what did you think then...when you were in trouble?
Harbhajan Singh: Back then, I did not think they would take me. I did not really think much of continuing playing for the Ranji Trophy because I knew my potential. But I had a family to feed, so I thought I might as well go abroad and do something. Anything to help run my family. I am not ashamed of doing anything, whether it is washing dishes or driving trucks or working at a petrol pump.
Shekhar Gupta: So you were planning to go to Canada or America.
Harbhajan Singh: At that time, my family was my top priority because I am the eldest. But suddenly I saw some hope when Sourav (Ganguly) spoke to me, called me to Delhi and John Wright, who was the coach then, saw me bowl. There was this camp of players and my name was in it. It was then that I realised that this could be my comeback. So, I went to the camp, performed well. And then they let me into the Board XI team that was touring Australia. They were short of a spinner because Anil bhai (Anil Kumble) was injured. I took three and two wickets in each of the innings. I bowled well, so my name came up for the first Test match.
Shekhar Gupta: Who do you give more credit to—Sourav or John Wright?
Harbhajan Singh: I give a lot of credit to Sourav. I think he was the guy who fought for me. Throughout my career, he has always been there when I needed his help and support, and so has Anil Kumble.
Shekhar Gupta: The Bombay Test match of 2001 was a disaster. That was the turning point in Indian cricket. So, what was the team taught after that very easy defeat in Bombay?
Harbhajan Singh: I remember that game. The Australians got out very fast in that match. At one stage, they were 91 for five, but from there onwards, Gilchrist played a fantastic innings. And Matthew Hayden got his first hundred. And suddenly, they were right on top and we lost the game. I picked up four wickets, so I survived and got to play in the next game. Then we went to Calcutta, which was a similar story. We got out, and they came to bat. By tea, they had started scoring hard, and they had made 200 to 250 runs. After tea, though, five to six wickets went down just like that. I don't know what happened, I had God's blessings. Everything was working out just the way I wanted. I got a hat-trick, bagged five wickets for the first time in a Test match. That day was the best in my life, when I realised that I could take five wickets. And I was against the best batsmen early in the game. They were in the driver's seat till then, but when we came in to bat, the situation changed again. But I think the whole game was about VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, the way they batted was just fantastic.
Shekhar Gupta: Sachin Tendulkar once said on Walk the Talk that the amount of bounce that Harbhajan got, I have never seen a spinner get so much bounce. He said that's why the Australians just could not handle it, because they were playing the sweep shot and they just did not understand the bounce.
Harbhajan Singh: The bounce was good, the wickets were good too. Every match went into the fifth day. It was a very good match at Calcutta, and a batsman always bats differently when he is under pressure. Plus, I had not played a lot against Australia, and they did not know my bowling that well either. I was just bowling the way I was bowling in Ranji Trophy, it was just that I had more confidence.
Shekhar Gupta: Bhajji, that series was also the beginning of your special relationship with the Australians. Of the top five batsmen that you dismissed the most number of times, four of them are Australians. Ricky Ponting is your special favourite.
Harbhajan Singh: Well, I want to do my best against the best. Because everyone says Australia is the best team in the world, they have very good players, they are very competitive. And I am very competitive too.
Shekhar Gupta: Do the Australians say things about you?
Harbhajan Singh: They keep saying bunny etc. When I go to bat, the wicketkeeper keeps saying something or the other behind my back. But when they are batting, they don't say much. Then it's our turn. I did not know much English then, but I would say whatever I knew. Or I would say something in my language. If they can make fun of us, we can too. But we still have to play.
Shekhar Gupta: The first time you got Ponting out, was it at Sharjah? I think you got him stumped. Even then, a few words were exchanged there.
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, I do not want to say what I said. I was young and it just happened. At that time, I did not really know the meaning of what I was saying. It was an English word, and that was the only one I knew. Something I heard from senior players.
Shekhar Gupta: But that was what took your special relationship with the Australians forward.
Harbhajan Singh: Well, after I dismissed Ponting six times in the 2001 series, he also started getting angry that this 20-year-old boy was getting him out all the time.
Shekhar Gupta: So, after Ponting, in a way, Andrew Symonds took over.
Harbhajan Singh: Whatever happened in Sydney was an instance of making a mountain out of a molehill. They do not like it when people say things about their players, but they are probably the worst when it comes to saying things or doing things to other players. But I am not like those who can listen to abuses and keep quiet. I have come to play, not get abused. If they abuse me, I will give it back to them.
Shekhar Gupta: But by that stage, things had come to a head.
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, they were frustrated. I was not getting out, and I was playing along with Sachin. They hadn't thought we could manage such a good partnership. They made Bret Lee bowl, and many others, but when they still couldn't break the partnership, they got angry. So, they started saying weird stuff, and if you say weird stuff to me, it's likely that I will give it back to you.
Shekhar Gupta: But do you regret what happened?
Harbhajan Singh: Well, whatever happened, they shouldn't have stretched it for so long. Even if it was my fault, they could have ended it then and there. If they can say things to people, they should have the ability to listen to stuff being said to them too.
Shekhar Gupta: Hayden had also said something?
Harbhajan Singh: Hayden was rattling on. Michael Clarke too. Then they complained about me, Ricky Ponting was the first. But if you say that the game should be played in the spirit of the game, how can complaining about somebody be included in that?
Shekhar Gupta: What kind of things were they saying?
Harbhajan Singh: First they were talking normally. But when they got personal, I got personal too. But I never said the word that they claimed I did.
Shekhar Gupta: The word, monkey?
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, I never said that. If I had, I would have definitely been banned.
Shekhar Gupta: What were the personal things they were saying?
Harbhajan Singh: About my home, etc. I can't say all those words here in front of the camera.
Shekhar Gupta: Describe your growth as a bowler. Like how you learnt the doosra.
Harbhajan Singh: I have been bowling doosras from the first day. The reason I was included in the Indian team was because I was the only Indian spinner who could bowl the doosra. Then they told me that my action was not right, and I was sent for a test. After I passed that, I came back to international cricket. But they continued to tell me the same thing. After that, I did bio-mechanics, which involves sticking a hundred things on your body. I have gone through all those tests and I am glad everything came out fine.
Shekhar Gupta: What are the new things you have done in cricket, and how have you changed?
Harbhajan Singh: I have not done many new things in terms of my bowling, I have just done what any normal guy may do. I just bowled a lot of balls in the nets, and I practised very hard. And I made sure I did my work right.
Shekhar Gupta: So, you learnt your tricks over time.
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, just by bowling in the nets and working hard. I love bowling single wickets, I think every spinner should bowl lots of single wickets. It gives you a lot of confidence. I still do it.
Shekhar Gupta: Players like you, who have been around for such a long time and have learnt so much, do you even feel the need for a coach?
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, because nobody can ever become perfect in cricket. Coaches always stand there and observe you play. Whenever I go to Jalandhar, I always make my old coach, Davinder Aroraji, stand at the nets. He can spot even the smallest of my mistakes. He has been watching my progress since childhood and even now he instructs me on how to improve my bowling.
Shekhar Gupta: Of the coaches that the national team has had—Gary Kirsten now, Chappell before that, John Wright before that, what are their attributes?
Harbhajan Singh: I think John Wright was fantastic with the team. He gave a lot of confidence to the players. When Mr Chappell took over from him, that was the biggest disaster. Everything went wrong, I don't know what he was up to.
Shekhar Gupta: But he caused insecurity in the team.
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, a lot of it. You couldn't go and talk to him about anything. As a player, if I go to the coach and tell him, 'Sir, my hand is not coming like this, what do you think' or 'I am not confident, what do I do', his job is to give me hausla (courage). But he, instead, would go to the press and say that he is not good, he lacks confidence. I remember, in one of his interviews, he said that a couple of guys are like cancer in the team. When he started off in Zimbabwe, we were playing a Test match and he was writing a mail to his journalist friend, saying this guy is like this, that guy is like that. He was leaking information to the media.
Shekhar Gupta: Did you ever confront him?
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, many times, that is why he did not like me. That's why he didn't like Sourav, Veeru or Zaheer because we were guys who used to ask him. He didn't like Sachin, he was after Sachin. Imagine, he wanted Sachin to retire.
Shekhar Gupta: So his going was good riddance.
Harbhajan Singh: Yes, thank God we got rid of him and we got Gary Kirsten. He's a proper guy for a team like India. And the way he handles the team, I have not seen anyone do it.
Shekhar Gupta: Tell me about your own tough moments—that fight with Sreesanth on the field.
Harbhajan Singh: I had a fight with him. Whatever happened was wrong on my part. But the coach came and spoke to me. He said I just want you to forget what happened, we will make sure everybody is happy—you are happy, the team is happy, Sreesanth is happy. We are just like a family, we have fights in our family. We need a guy like Gary to understand that we are not just playing, this is a family kind of a thing.
Shekhar Gupta: Some have felt that you have not been on top of your form lately.
Harbhajan Singh: You can't be in form all the time. You will have your low days, you will have your good days.
Shekhar Gupta: Is the strain of shifting between three forms of cricket too much?
Harbhajan Singh: It is difficult sometimes when you are bowling from one-dayers to Tests to T-20s. But you just have to go take those challenges and hope that you come out successful today, tomorrow and the next day.
Transcribed by Jimmy Jacob