Harbhajan Singh and Australia have had their fair share of tussles over the years, and the 35-year-old will look to rekindle the flame when he joins the Indian team for the T20 leg of their tour. Here he talks to The Indian Express about his previous tours Down Under, dealing with not being India’s first-choice spinner anymore while dismissing speculations regarding his retirement.
You and Australia have had quite a relationship over the years. This will be your first trip there in eight years.
There are lots of memories, and they are all quite fresh. Good and bad. I will start with the good. Winning the Perth Test was probably the key point of my Test career, even though I didn’t play that match. But in the context of the series, we fought really hard and won a match in which Australia were favourites. And of course winning the CB series by beating Australia was very satisfying. It is like winning a mini World Cup.
The bad memories include the Sydney spat, of course. It should have been handled better. It should have been stopped. Whatever happened there didn’t help anyone, neither Australian cricket nor us. We (Andrew Symonds & I) should have just sat like two mature people and spoken about it and sorted it.
Do you think personally you could have handled it better?
A lot of things happen on the field, and there have been occasions when worse things have happened. But you know it doesn’t turn into an affair that runs on for months in newspapers and TV channels. It was blown out of proportion. We should have, as players, put in better efforts to deal with the situation. From our side, from their side.
Australian fans and you haven’t really gotten along all that well over the years.
Honestly, it didn’t bother me. A lot of shouting and booing whenever I walked in. I felt like I am the most famous guy in Australia. Whether it was for good or bad, people noticed you. Might as well enjoy the moment. It’s only for a few hours. Then I’m back in the room. If anything the booing charged me to do better. It made me more focused. And the better I did, the crowd only kept getting unhappier with me. I enjoyed it. And I’m sure the crowd also enjoyed it.
I don’t know how they will react this time. I hope there’s no negative reaction. But there will be few people around there trying to say things. They come there to support their local team and in that process they could go after me as well.
It did seem last time around that your wicket celebrations were more exaggerated than usual?
There’s no scope of acting in cricket, even when you are celebrating a wicket. I don’t plan these things. Getting a wicket is my job. It is an achievement. You feel like doing something. Everyone does it in their own way. Some people punch the air, some people pretend that somebody is down there and punch him. I have been embarrassed on occasions too. When I ran a long way after getting Ricky Ponting out and did a somersault. Every time I saw that on the TV I was like, “Oh dear, that was too long a run. I could have saved up energy to bowl a few more overs.” Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes you feel like what was that nonsense that I did.
What was your take on the pitches that we saw in the Test series against SA?
I would have loved to have bowled on them and get 25-odd wickets. It would have been nice. But I should not be commenting on whether they were good or bad. We won the series which is good. We played to our advantage. When we go to any other country, they play to their strengths.
You have always spoken about being at your best when you are calm. It looks like you have been at your calmest these last 12 months.
Yeah, there have been a few things that have worked for me, and being calm and composed is one of them. It’s about concentrating only on the work at hand, each ball.
When you speak about being calm, does it mean only at the top of your mark?
Once you are concentrating on one thing, obviously you are alert enough to understand what’s going on in the middle. You are not thinking about if someone goes after you, what you need to do. That will come automatically. You can’t really pre-plan things. You go with the game. Then you change your style of bowling on that particular wicket along with your field-set. There is actually more time than we think there is when you are bowling or batting. But sometimes we do lot of things in a hurry. That’s where we make mistakes. At least I do.
I feel ok, Chalo yaar yeh ball jaldi se daal do. Last ball, I will just finish the over and go. You don’t concentrate hard enough on where you want to bowl. You might concede a boundary or a six, or even worse a single to the set batsman. That will get him on strike in the next over and he might hit the bowler at the other end for two fours. Then I am as much a culprit as that bowler.
This realisation that you should stop rushing through things has come about recently?
It’s not that I have just started doing this now. I have been told by a lot of my senior bowlers, “Take your time. Don’t rush.” Maybe I was not getting the idea sometimes. That was missing in between. Sometimes I was heeding to that advice, sometimes I was not.Then you make mistakes. Then you come back to the same thing, “Ok, take your time, boss. Relax.” It’s been there, but lately it’s come to the fore more because I have become calmer.
In the IPL, the lines you were bowling were more a ‘Test match line’, basically more attacking outside off-stump, even when batsmen were going after you.
I have noticed in T20s, at the end of the day, your attention should be to get the batsman out. And that’s what I look to do. This is the only thing I have changed. From the last 3-4 years, my performance has gone up in the IPL. This is the reason because I look to take that extra bit of risk to get a wicket. In that process you might get hit for runs here and there. But that is anyway going to happen in this format. My job is to take wickets but sometimes you need to understand the demands of a situation. If they need 9 runs-an-over, obviously they will look to target you. That time you need to be smart about how many chances you take, and maybe take a one-odd chance. But when you are defending 120, you are going all out.
During this ODI series against South Africa, did you realize how much the Indian dressing-room has changed?
I have seen the generations come and go. It’s a young environment. It’s much different than what it used to be. I don’t see Sehwag, Yuvi, Dravid, Sachin, Kumble and Ganguly. I don’t even see Dhoni now in some dressing-rooms. Like in Sri Lanka.
It is quite a relaxed sort of environment these days, and they have done a terrific job in keeping it a joyous dressing-room just like we did for all those years. The mood you create in the dressing-room is what you carry to the field after all.
Do you feel ‘old’ in the dressing-room?
I don’t feel there are things like old and young. I enjoy the kind of fun they have. I have done that all my life. (Laughs) Sometimes I am the one who plays the music and takes the lead in fun activities. I still play pranks on them, and at times I am at the receiving end. Basically my nature has not changed. The day you change, it’s the day you feel it’s time for you to go. That time you are not playing, you’re on the bed.
Anyone in particular that you relate to more than others?
I played with all of them when they were young and making their way into the team. I get along with most of them. Rohit Sharma is a gem of a guy who understands me very well and we have shared many dressing-rooms. Virat Kohli is another one I’m close with. He was the laadla of the team when he was growing up in his career.
We were at the top of our game and made sure to make him feel good in the dressing-room. It’s mutual now, and he now does the same for me, and gives me the same respect. Shikhar is a brilliant guy. Ajinkya Rahane is the quiet one but a lovely guy. It’s beautiful to be with these guys no matter what age you are at.
One thing that’s totally changed is fitness. They actually push me also to come along and make sure I do what I need to be doing, which has been brilliant. There’s masti obviously there, but on a serious note, this is also very important.
When you see guys like Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan, who came into international cricket after you, retire, what kind of effect does it have on you?
That was up to them. They know what’s going on with their body and mind. They need to plan their lives. Their decision should not put anyone else under pressure. Till I’m playing with my full energy, I will continue to play. Aisa toh nahi ho sakta bhai ki ek ka raasta doosre ke liye theek hai. I am enjoying what I’m doing.
The fact that you been only picked for the T20 squad and not the ODIs, and the 50-over World Cup is three years away, does that give you an indication of what the selectors are thinking?
If I start complaining there will be a lot of complaints. Better to be grateful for what you have. Wherever, whenever I get chances, I will go play. Like I played the last series against SA. I wasn’t in the team. Suddenly someone got injured and I bowled really well. But I’m not in the ODI squad (for Australia), that’s fine. I was expecting that I will be, but no complaints.
So it doesn’t mean that Bhajji has given up on ODI cricket?
I am looking forward to play in all the formats. But obviously it’s not in my hands. What’s in my hands is create opportunities.
A lot of people will start saying that World T20 in India will be the best chance for Harbhajan to call it a day in front of his home fans.
People have their own opinion. I will do what I feel I need to do. They are open to say or suggest what they feel. The day I feel I have something better than this, I will not even ask anyone. It might keep me happy for five more years. Why not? You live only once.
For years you were the No.1 spinner in India. How has it changed the way you think, to not to be considered No.1?
I don’t really think about those things. Obviously with time everything changes. What can you achieve by thinking about it, expect waste your energy? Instead you can think I’m still the best and continue to do what you can do. I always say I’m the best and I will get to play. There are others who might be good as well. But I need to be the best.
For a major part of your career, you were the guy the captain turned to first on the field. Is it difficult in a match situation, say like the Galle Test, when you, Amit Mishra and R Ashwin played, and you were almost like the third-spinner.
Not at all. I am there to do the job whenever the ball comes to my hand. Rather than think about “the ball should come to me first, and why is it going to him first?” Everyone has earned that place. To get that back you need to work little bit harder. Obviously you need a little luck as well. Basically you take those chances when the ball comes to you. It’s an opportunity for you to get the captain’s faith. Like the ODIs against SA, I was the first-change bowler. I was bowling the 5th and 6th overs. Obviously it had a lot to do with the confidence and the captain feeling that you can do the job.
I have seen Anil bhai. Nobody won more matches for India single-handedly like him. But I used to get the ball in my hand before him. I also did well, I earned that respect. The guys who are playing now have earned that respect. For me to get that back I have to work harder.
Is this the best you think Harbhajan has bowled in the last few years?
In terms of international cricket, this was the great series against South Africa. I bowled with a lot of control with whatever I wanted to do was happening. There were a lot of runs scored but I was still able to control things and take wickets. In the 450-run match, I was the only one who got away with 10 overs for 68. I did that by not bowling fast, flat but still bowling slower in the air and get the batsmen out without letting them get easy singles. So you can say yes, I have enjoyed how I have bowled.