Pushing 34 and away from the national side for close to a year, Harbhajan Singh still believes he has what it takes to set the gold standard once more. In a chat with Aditya Iyer, Bhajji talks about just what makes him pull through difficult times.
Cricket. Let me tell you what I know about cricket,” deadpans Harbhajan Singh, before conveniently breaking for a long pause. Letting the gravity of the words settle in, Harbhajan swells his lungs with a big gulp of air. To deliver his punchline, he’s going to need it. But first come the theatrics, quite like the flourish that precedes his delivery stride.
With a silver implement that closely resembles a knitting needle, the man who now refers to himself as ‘Bhajji’ in Caesarean third-person tucks the foliage behind his ears back under his patka, which in turn rests under a netted baseball cap. It’s peak is adjusted, the implement goes back down on the table and the index finger shoots up in the air. It will soon wag with every word spoken.
“This is what I think. I think cricket is far harder to play on the field, out there in the middle, than in the cozy of the media box, up there on the fourth floor,” he says, in almost one breath. Clearly pleased with the way the statement shaped out, he sits back to admire it, hands behind head and leg over leg.
He hasn’t said this with wrath. No, hell no. This is not Bhajji the bowler, who points in the direction of the dressing room with a scowl on his face, moments after having worked out a leech of a batsman. This is more Bhajji the willow-wielder, who has charged a fast bowler (legs criss-crossing each other, helmet bobbing comically and bat swinging in the air) in typical fashion and nicked the ball over the ‘keeper’s stretch for four.
Everyone but the quick can see the funny side of it.
But no celebration of his, whether initially giggling or growling, is complete without that half-smile. It’s always there, when collecting high-fives from the huddle or when the non-striker has walked down the track to punch his gloves. It appears today as well, seconds after he has told us what he thinks of the game. And just before he begins trimming his nails with his teeth. “I don’t know if I know much. But that much I know.”
You almost don’t want to hold his sarcasm against him. Being dropped from the national side is hard on any player, average or great. But being dropped from the national side when you’re the leading wicket-taker among active Test cricketers and the second best off-spinner (wicket-wise) to have played the game is just that much worse on the psyche.
“It hurts. It hurts when things are written. It hurts when I’m told that I’m not good enough,” he says. “But maybe I have done something right during my career that people are still writing about me. Maybe.”
There, that sarcasm again. Again, you don’t blame him and move on. But he doesn’t. The words and the questions linger when he’s asked what happened and where things went awry. And during his time away from international fields, he’s asked these questions rather often.
Questions like what happened to his famous toss and turn. Or if he’s spending sleepless nights in bed now, tossing and turning. Questions like whether he believes he’s still good enough. Or whether he, at 33, still has enough left in him to attempt being great again.
So as a defence, his answers are laced with irony and cynicism. Or something in between. But there isn’t a hint of it when he’s asked the tough one — will you play Test cricket again? Harbhajan fixes his karha and stops blinking. “Yes, Bhajji will play again. This story is not yet complete,” he says. Another pause follows. “Do you know why? Because I ask myself questions that are much harder to ask than anyone else does.
“And because I compete against myself, not against some other off-spinner in the Indian team.”
Competing against himself, and the odds, comes naturally to him. When his career was in its nascency, Sardar Sardev Singh Plaha passed away in 2000, leaving Harbhajan fatherless and the lone bread-winner of the family. He was 20 and there were five sisters to be married off. And because life gifts you with a sucker-punch when you’re least ready, Harbhajan had played the last of his eight Test matches in 1999. Dropped from the side for more than a year, he wasn’t sure if he would ever be recalled.
“This was when I considered giving up on cricket. I needed the money to put food on the table and was willing to do anything for it. Go abroad, wait tables, drive a cab, clean cars, anything. It’s an honest man’s work and there’s no shame in it,” he says, voice deep and shaking like a low-set flame. “But God was great and gave me strength. I didn’t give up then in tragic circumstances, so of course I won’t give up now.”
Then he clenches his fist and says: “I truly believe in this.” At first, you think, he believes in a fight. But then you realise that he’s holding the answer out right in front of you. On the side of his bowling palm and in cursive ink is printed a word. A five letter word. ‘Faith’, the tattoo reads.
Faith, then, is an appropriate way to describe Harbhajan’s tryst with his destiny — the Indian cricket team. In November 1997, the Test side arrived in Mohali for the first match of a series against Sri Lanka, with Rajesh Chauhan as the lone off-spinner in the squad. But this story, in fact, begins a few months earlier in Pakistan, when Saqlain Mushtaq, with his mesmerising doosra, had just become the fastest to 100 ODI wickets. How are these events related? Harbhajan offers an explanation.
“The Indian management was looking for someone who could bowl the doosra. Word had spread that there were two spinners in India who bowled it. One was me,” he says, setting up a story like he does. Who was the other, you interrupt. “Either Munuswamy or Muthuswamy. Doesn’t matter. Back to the story,” Harbhajan says, not happy to digress. So, back to the story.
“I received this call in Jalandhar and was told that I was expected immediately at the PCA Stadium. The Indian team wanted to check the wrong ’un out a day before the Lanka Test,” says he with facial muscles expressing shock. “But my bus was late and I reached when the session was winding down. Only Debashish Mohanty was batting, or trying to bat, and Sachin Tendulkar was enjoying bowling his various types of spin to him.”
You, of course, know the rest of the story. Within four months, he was to become the 214th Test cricketer to represent India. But the way Harbhajan tells it is far more interesting.
“So there in Mohali, I was asked to bowl at Mohanty, with all these big shots watching,” he says, trailing off into a chuckle. “Thank god it was Mohanty batting! Everytime I bowled a wrong ’un, he played it like an off-spinner. And everytime I bowled an off-spinner, he played for the doosra. Mohanty made me look good.”
“Anyway, I knew they had seen enough when Azhu bhai (Mohammad Azharuddin), stopped eating chicken, kept his plate down and walked inside the dressing room,” Bhajji laughs. “I was too nervous to talk but still mustered up enough courage to ask Sachin if I was any good. Who knows, it could have been the only opportunity to talk to my God. He nodded back and said, ‘Work hard and keep the faith.”
Bhajji kept his end of the bargain. And soon, so did India.
On March 28, 1998, a few months shy of his 18th birthday, Harbhajan replaced Chauhan, India’s go-to offie since 1993, for the third Test against Australia in Bangalore. Bhajji didn’t do much — two wickets and a catch, all in the first innings. Yet, Chauhan never played a Test again. That wasn’t good for the Aussies. For when they returned in 2001, Harbhajan was about to be renamed the ‘Turbanator’.
“I mean, what can I say? Everything that happened then was magic,” he says, caught between modesty and pride. “Kolkata, (VVS) Laxman, my hat-trick, it was all just a set of unbelievable events that make you think you’re dreaming. But one thing I proved to myself — that when I give my zubaan, I do it.”
He had prophesied taking 32 wickets in three matches? “No, no, not at all. On my first day with the Indian team, when I was asked to speak in a team meeting, I froze. I didn’t know English, you see, and was worried of embarrassing myself. So I said in Punjabi,
‘Sorry I don’t know English. But what I know is that I’ll put my life into my job,’” says Harbhajan. “The funny thing is, I even learned English by the end of that series. You know how much the Australians like to talk on the field.”
Classic Bhajji, taking himself and the Aussies down at the same time. According to the fables, this is the Bhajji of the dressing rooms — not taking himself too seriously, constantly taking a dig at everyone around and sticking smiles on his mates’ faces.
Talking about the old times, you can see a bit of it now. Nothing in the surroundings has changed. We’re still seated in the same place, Room 206 of the PCA Clubhouse. But the tinge of spite in his voice is long gone. Down nostalgia lane, bitterness has been replaced with mirth as Harbhajan laughs whole-heartedly and laughs rather often.
He slaps his knee as he narrates the following story. “When I was 13, I was in the Chandigarh Cricket Academy. One day, a few academy directors from Delhi arrived. So we all lined up to shake hands with them. They were asking questions in English, so I panicked. But I realised by the other answers that they will ask my name first, and where I am from next,” he says, fighting off a bout of giggles. “‘So son, where are you from?’ Confidently I said, ‘Harbhajan Singh’. ‘And your name?’ ‘Jalandhar.’”
For the rest of his academy years, he was rechristened Jalandhar. “But that stopped once I began playing Ranji Trophy and then for India. Then I became Plaha or Plahe,” he says. “In fact, Sachin paaji still calls me that. Plahe.” So when did ‘Bhajji’ happen? “Ask Nayan Mongia,” he says. “He needed something catchy to shout out, along with his Shabaashes and Aigahs. So Harbhajan became Bhajji. That’s what I go by now. It is even in my signature for official documents.”
It is also found on his state side’s Ranji Trophy jersey, with Punjab’s cricket kit being sponsored by ‘Bhajji Sports’. In December 2013, nearly a year after he played the last of his 101 Test matches, Harbhajan launched his range of sports apparel and goods that goes by the rather ambitious motto: ‘You demand it, Bhajji Sports will provide it.’
But what is even more interesting is the logo he chose for it. It is a silhouette of his bowling action, framed and stitched just at his point of release. The very point, or area, of his cricket that is now considered a concern.
When David Blaine was asked to explain his illusions, he said this: “It’s a bit like what they say about sharks. It’s not the ones you see that you have to worry about. It’s the ones you don’t see.” The same could be said about Bhajji’s performance grande before he delivers the ball.
It’s majestic. A hop kicks off his run-up. Then his arms flap out full stretch and fold quickly back in. Now it’s time for the jump, the hip-twist and the pistoning thumb. Here, a fraction before he delivers the ball, a good batsman can see the shark’s approaching fin.
Earlier in his career, during the good days, it would emerge as a Great White, armed with ferocious flight and vicious bite. It caused a good portion of Harbhajan’s 413 kills in Test cricket. But by the time he was dropped in March 2013, that fin rose out of the water as a plastic float, tied to a prankster’s back. Without flight and minimal turn, the batsman called the hoax from a mile away. It left him hungry and without five-fors for the last eight Tests of his career.
“Maybe in those last few Tests, I didn’t perform to the standards that I have set for myself, but I must have done something right to get to 400 Test wickets, no?” he asks with a gruff. The guard goes back up, and spontaneously the bile returns. “Yes, my last five-for was in Cape Town (January 2011), but it came in an important series. We didn’t lose a Test series in South Africa for the first time and I was India’s highest wicket-taker…”
Here, Harbhajan stops and sighs. Then, wiping the strain on his face, he speaks again. “But none of that, the good or the bad, matters now. It is in the past and the past doesn’t matter to anyone. What is important is that I’m working hard and believing in myself to make a return,” he says. “And I desperately want to earn my chance again. Do you want to know why?”
“Because in cricket, it is a lot easier to prove yourself out there in the middle than when you’re talking to someone from the media box, up there on the fourth floor.”