Whoever expects a marathoner to sprint the last mile can be compared to, say, Idi Amin. But to expect Harbhajan Singh to explain the reason(s) behind the 19-month gap between Tests 98 and 100 doesn’t even border on the harsh. The off-spinner chose to squat the query, though, choosing instead to “look ahead”.
He had drawn generous applause as he walked in for the pre-match conference. And flashes of a skinny 17-year-old crossed one’s mind. There was a time when Indian cricketers were scared to ‘give it back’. That changed when Sourav Ganguly took over. Bhajji was among the first to adopt Dada’s philosophy. Sporting an oversized jersey and a smattering of hair that could pass as a beard, the ‘Sardar from Jalandhar’ took on the world.
He had to wait nearly three years for his maiden five-wicket haul but, in the end, it was worth it. The epic series of 2001 saw him cross that barrier. As India grew in stature, so did Bhajji. Slowly but steadily, he became Indian’s numero uno spinner, quietly replacing Anil Kumble. With 408 wickets, Harbhajan is quite clearly the most successful spinner still playing the game.
“Peheli baar mere liye press conference mein kisi ne taali bajayi hain (never before have I been applauded at a press conference),” a visibly happy Harbhajan said on Thursday. Less than 24 hours later, he’d become the 10th Indian to cross the 100-Test barrier. Harbhajan thanked the almighty and many of his seniors including Tendulkar, Srinath, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman and, of course, Kumble. “Obviously it was great to have Anil Kumble on the other side. One thing I’ve always cherished is that he was one guy who would never give up. If he was bowling at the other end, the 30th over, he would be bowling with the same intensity. I used to think, ‘why can’t I do this?’ That’s what pushed me,” he said.
Controversy has always shadowed him — be it his bowling action, Monkeygate, Slapgate… “It’s been a journey with lots of ups and downs. No one can always be at the top; no one will always be down…”
The greatest moments of his Test career, he revealed, were the epic series win in 2001 and India attaining the No 1 ranking in 2009. “I have definitely grown up. I was 17-and-a-half then, now I’m 32. I remember my debut under Azharuddin. I was just a kid who didn’t know what’s happening. With time, you learn. I’ve made a few mistakes earlier in my career, due to my extra aggression. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But with time I’ve learnt a lot.”
Unlike Ashwin who keeps working on some mystery ball without much good, Harbhajan chose to be honest. “I’ve not developed any mystery balls, there are no chauthas or panchvas (fourth or fifth ones). Pehla hi agar theek ho jata hai, usme hi kaafi wicket mil jaate hain (if you get the first one — stock delivery — right, you get enough wickets),” he said evoking more laughter.
And here’s a statement of intent. “Once I get past 100, let’s see what needs to be done to play another 50. Probably I’ll have to work even harder.”