Harbhajan Singh, India’s most successful off spinner in Test cricket, has opened up on the difficult time he spent when not part of the team’s plans for the major part of four years. Terming his initial axing from the Test and ODI squads in the second half of 2011 as “a jolt”, the veteran offie who made a return to all three formats in the past month credited his work ethic and positive spirit for keeping him optimistic.
Harbhajan was recalled to India’s Test, ODI and Twenty20 teams over the past month, starting with a call-up for the one-off Test against Bangladesh, and with a tally of nine wickets in those three internationals appears to have done enough to earn further selection in a busy season for India. Speaking to bcci.tv, the 34-year-old offspinner reflected on the time away from the national team and what it felt like to make a comeback.
“It felt wonderful. It was the moment I had waited for for two years,” said Harbhajan. “There wasn’t a single minute during those two years when I thought I would not play international cricket again. I always believed that I will play for India again and win matches. So, when I got on the field for the Bangladesh Test, I was really pleased and relieved that I was finally where I wanted to be. Now I need to continue to work hard on my game in order to keep doing my bit for the team.”
In his first Test for India since March 2013, when he was dropped after two unsuccessful matches upon recall, Harbhajan had figures of 22.5-4-75-3. Not earth-shattering, but good enough to earn praise from his captain Virat Kohli and fellow spinner R Ashwin, who took over the mantle of India’s No 1 slow bowler from Harbhajan in late 2011. Asked about his emotions as he marked his run-up in Fatullah after a two-year hiatus, Harbhajan said the anxiety did not get the better of him.
“When I started bowling, I wanted to get settled first since I was playing a Test after a long gap. There was a feeling of anxiety before the match. I just wanted it to begin quickly and get that ball in my hand,” he said. “When I did come on to bowl, for the first three-four overs I didn’t try to do much, just land the ball in the right areas. Once I got settled, I told myself, ‘Okay, just give your best now and do what you know you can do’. My team-mates were all the young guys who have seen me bowl for years. They all got behind me, cheering me on and making a lot of noise for every good ball I bowled. They made me very comfortable and I really enjoyed the whole experience.”
Harbhajan had lost out to Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja as India’s preferred spinners since a poor tour of England in the summer of 2011. He was recalled to the Test team for a home series against England in November 2012, then dropped after two Tests against Australia in early 2013. He made it back for the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 too, taking four wickets in his comeback game, but was not selected from September 2012 until the recent Zimbabwe tour. He was out of the ODI team from June 2011 until the recent three-match series, in which he took four wickets as India swept Zimbabwe.
“Initially when I was dropped, I didn’t get too disheartened,” he said. “I took it on the chin thinking if I am not selected today, I will, tomorrow. Every time the Indian team was to be announced, I hoped my name would be on the list. When it wasn’t, I got upset and disappointed each time and I had to distract myself to get out of that zone.”
“There could be various reasons [for exclusion]. My form could be one and also fitness. Another factor could be that when you have had something for a long time, you forget that you could lose it. When you do lose it, it hits you hard and suddenly you realise what that thing meant to you. You miss it,” he added.
“Then you realise, ‘I should probably have worked a bit harder’. You wonder, ‘What could I have done more so that I wouldn’t have been dropped’? I am not saying I had lost the fire. It was always there. I always wanted to continue to play for India. But when you do something for so long, it sometimes gets to you. You are doing the same thing over and over again every day and monotony can creep in. That could be one of the reasons even if only one per cent of them. When I was dropped, it came as a jolt. I didn’t know what to do. It took some time for the reality to sink in.”
Apart from working on his fitness and bowling technique, Harbhajan revealed that having a positive outlook on his career helped him stay upbeat.
“I made a conscious decision to be happy no matter what because I realised there is more to life than cricket,” he said. “As international cricketers we are so consumed by this small world around us that consists of cricket grounds, hotels and airports that we lose touch with the outside world. Every small setback inside our little bubble seems so big. Spending these two years away from all that helped me put things in perspective. I realised that even when you are playing, you have to learn to leave the game to the ground.”
“Earlier, I used to bring it back with me to my hotel room. I used to play one match on the ground and then another in my room in my head. I used to analyse my bowling, probably more than the experts did. There were times when I picked wickets and everyone was all praise for me. But in my head I knew I didn’t bowl well. In the last couple of years I have calmed down a lot in that regards. Yes, cricket is something that gives me the most happiness. It has given me so much in life that no matter what I do, I will never be able to repay it. But at the same time, there is other life away from cricket. And I have realised that now. Once you start living that life, you will be more relaxed and happier, which will eventually make you better at your sport.”