May 25, 2017

'When you return to domestic cricket, you have to keep your ego aside'

Harbhajan Singh talks comebacks, fatherhood, and how his comment about spin-friendly Indian pitches was misunderstood
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WATCH - Harbhajan's blistering cameo

Do things become harder as a cricketer once you cross 35?
I don't think age is a factor. As you grow older, you obviously become more experienced. I have not tried anything fancy - just kept things really simple, checking the batsman, the situation, understanding my own game and what is he [the batsman] looking to do, what is the best option I should be looking to bowl, what angles. If you bowl what you know, you will get results.

Things may not always fall in place, but you know this is the best thing rather than trying something which is not even in your game, and you have just learnt that because you feel that the batsman will go after you. Over the years, muscles develop by bowling in a certain way. To suddenly change it, I don't think is the right approach.

Have you tried doing something different and then had to revert to your original methods?
Yeah, several times. We try different things. We think if it's a right-hand batsman, I should not bowl an offbreak to him. Why do we decide that? In Test cricket, you bowl offspin to a right-hand batsman with midwicket and mid-on inside the ring. It's not as if the batsman can't hit from the first ball there. It's all about the mindset you are in.

In T20s, the batsman looks to take chances, so as a bowler, be ready for it rather than getting on to the back foot right from the start. If the batsman is that good, let him hit your best deliveries and not because you are making mistakes. Is format mein bachne ke liye nahi dekhna chahiye [In this format, you can't look at self-preservation]. You should be smart enough to do what needs to be done, and this is what I have looked to do in ten years. Not every day can you get away with figures of 20 or 22 runs from four overs. This is the kind of format where you see the best of bowlers like [Lasith] Malinga go for 50 runs in four wicketless overs. That doesn't make you a bad bowler. You should back your game.

You haven't been a regular in the India side over the last four or five years. Is it easy to stay motivated in the grind of domestic cricket after playing at the highest level?
It's very tough getting back to domestic cricket and putting the same effort. You feel you will go there and run through sides. As a batsman, you [think you] will score hundreds just because you played at the international level. But it doesn't happen that way. Even if you are motivated, you still have to push your limits because sometimes nowadays these domestic players are better players of spin bowling than the international players.

There are very few players [at the international level] who play spin well. Playing spinners on good tracks, you still need patience and application, but on the kind of surfaces we have played on over the last four or five years, batsmen don't hang around. The only difference is that a regular batsman tries to apply himself, while the tailender goes for his shots and scores runs.

"Playing for India is not the biggest thing now. My family comes first for me - my daughter, my wife, my mother"

Does it hurt the ego that you have to go through it again?
It does get to you. You ask yourself if it is worth doing this again. You know you have been what [kind of] bowler and the matches you have won for India. But what are the options?

When you return to domestic cricket, you have to keep your ego aside. Bada player jo andar baitha hai na, usko side mein rakhna padta hai [You need to keep the big player in you aside]. Whatever you have done is history. Do what you need to do now. The wickets are good and the players are good against spin bowling. You get disappointed, but then you pick yourself up and say, "Okay, let's come back stronger next day and do it again." Be it IPL or domestic cricket or international cricket, the approach is always the same: to take wickets.

It's not like it happens only with me. If you talk to anyone, they will say the same thing. Even an Anil Kumble has to go through it.

When you feel this way, who do you discuss your frustrations with?
You can't tell everyone. There are people within the cricket fraternity and outside. When we meet and talk to people, such discussions often happen. The only way to make a comeback is to play and enjoy the game. Why did we start playing this game? Because we used to enjoy it. Suddenly, woh enjoyment khatam karke, sar dard nahin banni chahiye yeh game [The enjoyment shouldn't become a headache]. But it does happen that way, whether you do it deliberately or not. Circumstances lead to that kind of a mindset.

Whatever level you are playing, you should look to enjoy. That's what I have been looking to do over the last year and a half. I will just enjoy no matter where I am playing and what level I am playing at. If I am not enjoying, I will not take part.

I didn't play the last season [of first-class cricket] because I was enjoying with my family. I thought there's no need for me to be travelling from one place to another every four days because this time won't come back again. This is a beautiful time and I want to be there each and every day.

Do you record all your daughter's activities?
My camera is full of my daughter's videos and photos. Obviously your priorities change when you have kids. That's what happened to me and she brought a lot of changes in me. Playing for India is not the biggest thing now. My family comes first for me - my daughter, my wife, my mother.

When my cricket life was in full swing, everything revolved around the game - the family stays at home while I go and play. Even now, when I walk on to the field, I play with the same mindset. And there is no need to get disappointed. If you have a good day or a bad day, it's all part of the game.

"You only get better with age. I started playing when I was 17 and now I am 36. The kind of experience I have, a 25-year-old boy won't have" © Associated Press

It's probably a nice thing to say, but…
A man can say all this only if he feels it. See, this is not the kind of stuff reserved for lectures. If I had been asked the same question when I was 20, I couldn't have said this. [The change in thinking] comes only with time. Yes, I have played and enjoyed those 15-16 years of top-level cricket, playing with the greats. I am enjoying the IPL and I am looking forward to making a comeback by doing well. I am still doing as well as I was doing then. It's not like there has been a drop in my commitment, but now I have reached a stage where I won't get disappointed if I am not selected. If I am not selected here, I will be selected in another or the next one after that. But I will be selected somewhere or the other because until that time I will keep knocking on the doors. If you keep performing, you can't be ignored.

The selection committee has established that performances in one format will have a bearing on selection the other, as was proved in Yuvraj Singh's case. He returned to the ODI team on the back of good performances in the Ranji Trophy. Any regrets, then, about not playing the Ranji season?
No, playing four or five games wouldn't have changed my life. If that has to happen, it will happen even now.

Are you closing the doors on long-form cricket?
At that point I closed the door to be with my daughter. Now she has grown up and she can travel with me.

So you will play next year?
Absolutely. I am 100% available. That's the reason I am playing all the Ranji Trophy one-dayers, domestic T20s and now the IPL.

Have you asked the selectors what they expect of you?
They spoke to me and said, "You play. You haven't played the whole season." I said, I have told you not available means not available. Now I have started playing, so I am available for selection like any other player. If I do well, then it's up to you guys.

Have they told you age won't be a factor?
You only get better with age. I started playing when I was 17 and now I am 36. The kind of experience I have, a 25-year-old boy won't have.

It's been quite a good journey - lots of ups, downs, disappointments and joyful moments. That way I am quite happy and satisfied. Yeah, had I managed my anger better, things would have been nicer. [Mellowing with age and experience] happens automatically.

"Once, Sachin paaji taught me how to bowl a delivery where you can release the ball like an outswinger with an offspin grip. I have used it to dismiss several left-hand batsmen"

Since R Ashwin is also an offspinner, does that make you superfluous to the team's needs?
That's always been there, no? There is someone in the team and someone coming into the team. If he is good, he is good. My competition is with me - how I can better what I used to do.

During India's Test series against New Zealand last year, you lashed out at the Indian pitches and suggested that the current generation of India spinners had it easy. In hindsight, do you wish you hadn't said that, given that it was seen as a jibe against Ashwin?
I have not spoken about any individual. I am talking about [how] cricket should be played on fair wickets. Yes, there has to be some advantage playing at home, but not from ball one, because it can often backfire as well.

But the timing of the comment…
When else could I have made it? You can talk about it only when it is happening in front of you. What's the point of talking about matters that happened 15 years ago? I know what I intended and how I said it, and there are people who will take it in another way. I am not talking about one individual there. I am talking about how we can improve as a team. The only way we can improve as a team is by playing on wickets of substance. The match should go on till the fifth day with one team looking to win and the other looking to save the game. It shouldn't be a case of a match finishing in two and a half days and then you pack your bags and move on. In such a case, the toss becomes a huge factor. I said what I felt was the right thing.

You clarified your statement with Ashwin on Twitter.
People were going after me. I am not jealous, boss, of anything. What am I going to get from XYZ taking wickets or someone winning matches? In the end, I am only talking about the excessive turn and the unfair [surface]. I didn't talk about myself or say how I would work wonders on wickets like this. I spoke about what Anil Kumble would do if he got wickets like this.

Big players don't talk about things like this. Virender Sehwag is one guy who spoke about what he saw. Commentary is something where you talk [about] what you see. And if you play the game, you understand how easy or difficult it is to bat on a certain wicket.

The Pune wicket [for the first Test between India and Australia] - hats off to Steven Smith. It was difficult to face a single delivery on that surface, and he went on to score a hundred. I have not seen anyone playing like this, stepping out and playing cover drives to an offspinner. Anything could happen on that surface. Even the bowler doesn't know how the ball will behave after pitching on a certain spot. It was unplayable in Bangalore also.

Let's not just get into the pitches and stuff. Just a general observation is that we are too good a team to play on such wickets. We will get results even on good tracks [like during the England series].

Harbhajan celebrates the wicket of Hashim Amla in Durban, 2010 © Associated Press

Skill-wise and temperamentally, how have you evolved as a cricketer?
You have some talent at the beginning. You get better with your talent by doing little things, adjusting angles, the positioning of the ball - where should the seam point, how upright the seam should be - how much sidespin you need to get on a certain wicket. Field placements are very important.

I remember the first Test in Centurion in 2010. People like [Hashim] Amla and [Jacques] Kallis were hitting me through the covers and at the same time slogging over midwicket. It was difficult for me to understand what lines I needed to bowl. Although I had played a lot of cricket in the past, sometimes the mind doesn't work.

Then Ravi Shastri called me around 11.30 in the night. He said, "I am sitting at the bar, come down." I went, and he said I was bowling too wide on those pitches looking for the bat-pad gap as well as catches around the bat. We spoke for about 15-20 minutes.

In the next game, in Durban - the wicket there stays the same for the most part and doesn't really break - I kept bowling on off and middle without going wide of off stump. I got Amla out lbw, then I got Dale Steyn nicking. It was just because I was bowling tight lines, because I took their off-side game out of the equation. If they had to play through the off side, they had to go inside-out, which increased my chances. The only way they could play was with the spin, so I could set my fields. That was one piece of advice that worked for me. Sometimes you discuss such things with team-mates. In this case, Ravi was on commentary, so he was noticing. I ended up taking a lot of wickets on the tour.

Have you learnt from other spinners as well?
Yeah, by looking at other spinners you can learn a lot of things. Once, Sachin paaji taught me how to bowl a delivery where you can release the ball like an outswinger with an offspin grip. This was especially the case with the new ball. Paaji used to slip this delivery between offbreaks. I asked him to teach me the delivery, and I have used it to dismiss several left-hand batsmen. With a slightly newer ball, it will swing back into the batsman and get him out lbw or bowled.

[Even when I play with another offspinner in the side], I don't think he is a rival. Both of us are playing together. It doesn't matter [if he is a junior]. He is there to play because he is good. I am there because I am good too. Our motive is to win the game for India. Whenever Ashwin is doing well, I congratulate him. It's okay if people have made a big controversy on Twitter; it's their job. Only we know what relationship we share as players.

You can't have the [same rapport] with everyone, but when you are playing in the same team, I think it's important to have a good rapport with everyone. A player is like a brother. If he is doing well, good. If he is not, then something is missing and if I think I should go and talk to him, then I do.

You have stayed with the same franchise for a decade now. What has the role of Mumbai Indians been in your career?
It has been my second family. I have given my heart and soul for them and they have also been really good to me. See, the IPL is a very demanding world. You have to keep producing results. Obviously, a rapport is created only when you do something good for someone. You do well, you stay with the franchise. If you don't, they will let you go. It's fun and a matter of great pride to be part of the same team because there is a sense of belonging, that MI is my team.

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jasprit on May 28, 2017, 0:52 GMT

    Started out as a beautiful, classical offspinning Test Bowler. As time went on, kept loosing the art of flight and kept getting flatter and flatter and was left as nothing more than a limited overs bowler. With the introduction of T20 and IPl, became nothing more than a T20 bowler. But when he was good, except the bend in the arm, he was extremely good. His action, release, flight, trajectory was nothing less than poetry in motion. At the moment, this season has shown a new Harbhajan. Bowled with a lot of flight and courage. Doosras and bounce is there. Definitely would have been a solid, positive selection in the team as his 10 overs under 50 would be a certainty. Now Bhuvneshawar Kumar is turning into the same story. A brilliant Test bowler to start and turning into nothing more than a limited overs restrictive bowler. Cheers!

  • sam on May 27, 2017, 4:49 GMT

    So much talking and yet Harbhajan himself missing the point. Post WC 2011 he lost the ability to spin the ball. The zip and magic he had between 2001 and 2005 was long gone but still he has a good international spinner who rediscovered some of his magic on tours of NZ in 2009 and SA in 2010-11. Post 2011 WC he was a miserable bowler in test matches. I remember him bowling in Mumbai 2012 vs Eng and vs SL in Galle in 2015; he couldn't spin the ball on a rank turner. And that translated into First Class Cricket as he couldn't take wickets even in First Class Cricket. There are 25-30 spinners better than him in the longer format; he is so low down the pecking order currently (among off-spinners too; besides the incomparable Ashwin there are Jayant Yadav, Amir Gani, K Goutham, Jalaj Saxena, Parvez Rasool, etc. all better than him). But having said all that he still is a good short format bowler. Can still play for India in shorter formats as a restrictive spinner if Ashwin needs a rest.

  • Sagir on May 26, 2017, 13:15 GMT

    Someone needs to tell Bhajji that he needs to let go of his ego in other walks of life too.. Crying out over not being selected in the Champion Trophy Indian squad comes across as a pathetic loser, especially when you do not have consistent bowling performances to back that up.

    I agree with Arun Livingston that hero worshipping of our players has to stop.. they are professional sportsmen, not deities or demi-gods.. and their selection in the national side should be based on one and only one criteria - current form and performance !

  • Arun Livingston on May 26, 2017, 3:51 GMT

    @SANDY1601 There is no need for any sort of send off's. This hero worshiping of cricketers in south asian countries have got to stop. Which western country give this kind of send off's to their sport starts?

  • Steve on May 25, 2017, 17:44 GMT

    I think Harbhajan's playing time is over. No one, except himself, can fully understand the reasons for his gradual decline since early 2010. With loads of proven international success, he was struggling to get even 1 or 2 wkts in the few Ranji games he played in recent times against teams one would expect him to run through. I personally think he lost sting in his bowling, lost turn and bounce and turned himself into run restricting mode. Lost his place even from his last haven, MI in IPL. Sun is more likely to raise in West than him playing for India again. Time to go into coaching.

  • Sandeep on May 25, 2017, 15:00 GMT

    BCCI & Selectors should communicate with aging players about their retirement plans. Players like Zahir, VVS, Sehwag, Bhajji, Gambhir all need a better send offs.

  • Sarang on May 25, 2017, 13:02 GMT

    He needs to accept that he has been past his prime for many years now. He couldn't take wickets in IPL, in couple of tests he played during India's home season and earlier. Unless you take wickets, there are no excuses. Just like batsmen need to score runs. That's why I like Gambhir's attitude. Even though he had good IPL, he just conceded that he didn't deserve a chance in Indian ODI team. Fair guy. Bhajji needs to learn rather than crying baby and comparing himself with Ashwin and Dhoni is ridiculous for him now. Leave with respect intact.

  • Cricinfouser on May 25, 2017, 12:16 GMT

    @Siva_bala.. it might be one of the main reasons why India almost plays poorly outside the subcontinent. Our spinners (current lot) becomes absolutely toothless there, and faster bowlers are also really not that great. None of the spinners mentioned by you is going to win matches or play significant part in any rare victory abroad.

  • Niraj on May 25, 2017, 12:06 GMT

    Bhajji was a very good 2nd spinner .... but failed as a lead spinner ... Stats are impressive ... but it just states the longivity and not greatness.

  • Siva on May 25, 2017, 9:47 GMT

    Bhajji's test career is over. In my view the top 5 spinners are: 1) Ashwin, 2) Jadeja, 3) Kuldeep Yadav, 4) Shabaz Nadeem and 5) Jayant Yadav.

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