Up close with Harbhajan Singh

"The important thing is that I am still enjoying myself. The day I stop enjoying, I will say goodbye to this beautiful game that’s given me everything in life," says Harbhajan Singh in this interview.

"I hope that I will get to play (on a regular basis) because I want to do what I am capable of doing. I want to do what I have always done," says Harbhajan Singh.   -  V. Ganesan

Harbhajan with his wife Geeta Basra. "When you are married, you have to do things according to a plan in which your partner is a part of. You need to give time and extra care for that person."   -  PTI

Harbhajan Singh is a lot calmer now. By his own admission, he doesn’t celebrate like before. “It’s got to do with age,” he tells Sportstar in an exclusive chat in Valsad where Punjab lost to Assam in the quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy.

The off-spinner, who recently tied the knot with actor Geeta Basra, also talks about his position in the Indian team, how rank turners should not be the way forward and what he intends to do for the country apart from playing his heart out.

He clarifies his position on the conflict of interest allegation with respect to sports apparel company Bhajji Sports, which he says he doesn’t own. Here’s the full interview...

Question: You are back in the Indian team after more than two years. Can we call it a second wind?

Answer: You can call it whatever you want to. For me, it’s just nice to be back where I belong. And, yes, I hope that I will get to play (on a regular basis) because I want to do what I am capable of doing. I want to do what I have always done.

You have been playing international cricket for 16 years. You had a great partnership with Anil Kumble. Later, you became the lead spinner. Now, R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are the main spinners. How do you look at this shift?

With time, everything changes. It doesn’t bother me as to who the first, second or third spinner is. In my view, whoever gets the opportunity to play must win games for the country. When I was growing up, I was the first-choice. Of course, there has been a longer gap (away from the team) than what I expected. Other people have done well in that gap. They have taken that seat where I used to sit. That’s all fine. As long as I continue to work hard and get back to where I was, it’s fine. It’s about doing the right things. I wish the other two spinners all the luck. And I hope they continue to do what they have been doing.

Your contenders in the team are still in their 20s. Where does that leave you in terms of challenges?

The only challenge is to keep pushing yourself.

How do you do that, mentally?

Actually, it’s more of a physical thing. The most difficult thing is to work out and to do what’s required to stay fit. It can be very challenging and very boring. It can get to you.

For example, say, five years ago you could do 50 push-ups in one go…

I can still do it!

What’s the difficulty now?

The difficulty is just to push yourself. There are days when you feel ‘Do I have to wake up early for this training?’, ‘Why do I need to do it?’ But that’s just how it is (smiles). The truth is that you have to go through this. That’s the way it is for everyone. So, why should I run away from it? You have to do it to make things work for you. So, you wake up early, go for a jog and follow your training routine. If you do it, then there is no stopping you.

Sachin Tendulkar said how the last few years of his international career were difficult on the body…

Yes, that’s my point. It gets very difficult. I have not reached that stage yet (smiles). But you do tell yourself ‘OK, chalo yaar, let me rest for another day.’

What about food?

It’s all about eating the right sort of food. My marriage was in the middle of the season. It was a big moment for me if you look at the bigger picture. I needed to, sort of, get settled. And your shaadi is one function where you can’t avoid all the food, the sweets and the celebrations. I must admit I gained some sort of weight in some areas I didn’t want to (laughs). I required some extra workout. I gave enough time to my body. And I still need to find some extra time to do the right sort of exercises.

You have 417 wickets in Test cricket and 269 in ODIs. You have won so much in your career. How do you set goals at this stage of your career?

I don’t look at the numbers. It’s been a great journey. I have enjoyed being part of the whole set-up. I have enjoyed every day. There have been hard days and good days. That’s obviously a part of every journey. The important thing is that I am still enjoying myself. The day I stop enjoying, I will say goodbye to this beautiful game that’s given me everything in life. I like getting those pains. When I do my workouts, I get those sweet pains and niggles. The day I stop enjoying all this, I’ll say thank you very much (and retire).

There was a time when Harbhajan Singh was all about josh. Now, you seem a lot philosophical. Has it got to do with age, experience, reading and marriage?

I have been like this lately. I think it’s got to do with age. I still have the fire in my belly. Yes, the celebrations have come down a bit. I am calmer, more approachable. Earlier, I was an angry young man.

That’s Virat Kohli now…

(Laughs) Yes, he has taken up that (mantle). My style is different now. I am more composed. But I do enjoy when I take a wicket or hit a six or take a good catch. And I do get upset when I drop a catch, play a stupid shot or bowl a bad ball.

How does marriage change a person?

You become more responsible towards your partner. When you are single or even when you are in a relationship, you can do things according to your timings and plans. When you are married, you have to do things according to a plan in which your partner is a part of. You need to give time and extra care for that person.

What is your wife’s role in your career?

She is always there to support me. She doesn’t understand the finer points of the game, but she enjoys watching me play.

Given that she, too, is a professional, do you discuss the pressures of work?

It’s I who share these things most of the time (laughs). We don’t have re-takes in our game. It’s a live audience. Everyone is involved. Everyone in our country has an opinion on cricket. Everyone wants to know ‘Why did you play like this?, ‘Why did you play that shot?’, ‘Why did you bowl that ball?’, ‘Why did you drop that catch?’ ‘Why did you not stop that boundary?’ For us cricketers, I feel it’s tougher. Acting is obviously a skill which can be learnt or it’s there in you. In cricket, we are playing a match every two or three days. If Aamir (Khan) or Salman (Khan) make a movie, they can relax for six months to one year. If Sachin scores a hundred in one match and doesn’t score a hundred in the next match three days later, he is criticised. These are two different fields. I respect each and every individual and what they are doing to make a living. You can’t compare cinema with sport. Yes, we are all there to entertain people. And I’d rather keep it like that.

Recently, there was a conflict of interest allegation against you. A company called Bhajji Sports is supplying kits to six domestic teams. You have told the BCCI’s ombudsman that it’s not your company…

Yes, I have nothing to do with it because I don’t own it.

But the company is named after you…

Who told you that my name is Bhajji? My name is Harbhajan Singh. Bhajji is a name given to me by you people and my fans. If my friend (Vikram Sidhu, director, Bhajji Sports) wants to start a company called Bhajji Sports, then so be it. I am a brand ambassador. I have endorsed several brands like Reebok and Hero Honda in the past. Nobody spoke about all that. Just because the bat and the clothing carries the name Bhajji Sports, you can’t do anything about it.

 

But the complainant has claimed that you told the media how interested you were in wearing good clothes and doing business in this field…

Yes, I have always wanted to look good and dress well. But does it imply that it’s my venture? Bhajji Sports is something I am part of because I am a brand ambassador. For example, I wear a Hublot watch. I always love Hublot. I give ideas to them. I tell them use this colour combination and it will look good. And they take my suggestions. Similarly, I said in an interview (published a few years ago) that this is how one must make track suits for sportspersons. Everybody will enjoy wearing it. Nobody in this field makes that sort of clothing. I told Vikram and he came up with a similar sort of a track suit. It was just the way I suggested it.

Vikram is your childhood friend, but he doesn’t pay you a fee…

They don’t have money to pay me. I did not have a sponsor for my bat. So I decided why not play with a sticker of a company owned by my friends. It made sense than taking very less money from another sponsor. I thought I might as well help a friend. As far as I know, Vikram has a system in place where the company sponsors some teams. The others buy his jerseys and kit bags.

Back to cricket. How do you hope things will pan out for you?

Who knows, by the end of the World T20, I could be the leading spinner. It’s all about bowling great in one or two games. Look at Jasprit Bumrah. He was not even in the scheme of things. Suddenly, he landed in Australia, did well there, and, now, he is your No. 1 pick.

Look, there is no point in complaining how things went wrong. Whatever happens obviously happens for a reason. You need to learn from whatever happens. Life goes on.

How different is spin bowling today than, say, 10 years ago?

The mindset has changed. Yes, spinners need to look to attack a bit more, but the most important thing is to understand the conditions. You can’t do too much if the surface is not doing anything. That said, it’s not just about the surface. You need to understand how you will bowl on the first day or the third day or the fifth day of a Test match. On a bad surface where everything is happening, some balls are going straight and some are spinning, anybody can bowl. The essence of the art of spin bowling is to get people out when things are not so much in favour of the spinners. You get to learn about bowling when you bowl 30-40 overs a day in a Test match. I feel Test matches should last four or five days. That’s for sure. No matter where we are playing, home or away, Test matches must go the distance.

We just saw a series replete with three-day Tests against South Africa…

They lasted two days, two-and-a-half days. I feel Test matches should go on for four or five days. This will help us find better players, better spin bowlers, better fast bowlers and better batsmen. I have not seen a fast bowler bowl too many overs in India.

But the team is asking for rank turners…

That’s their choice. But, if you look at the bigger picture, we need to have Tests being played for five days. Obviously, India will win. India can win on good tracks.

What’s a good track?

A good track helps everyone. Seamers should come into the game on the first two days. The second day should be good for batting provided the batsman is prepared to leave some balls alone. From the third day, the track must assist spinners. I am not talking about a rank turner. I am talking about a wicket wherein everyone has a chance to show his skills. After all, it’s your skills that should get you wickets, not the pitch. What is the point if the pitch does everything?

Ashwin and Jadeja are the main spinners now…

I am not here to talk about anyone else. They have done well in whatever cricket they have played. I am not commenting on that. I am talking in general. Whatever opportunities they have got, they have done well.

How do you look at Virat Kohli? He is expected to take over from Dhoni in all formats. How different is he from Dhoni?

Dhoni has definitely played a big role for Indian cricket to grow. He has led some good teams. Some brilliant players played under him. That gave him a lot of leverage and confidence and he learnt very quickly from the seniors. After the 2007 World T20 win, he became very confident. Then, the 2011 World Cup happened. That was also a big team. Most guys in that side had already played nearly 10 years of international cricket. When you have so many match-winners in the team, it allows the captain to do things freely. Later, Dhoni backed Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane among others. And I am sure these boys will form the best line-up in the world. The kind of talent they have is unbelievable. They can handle spin, pace, everything.

What about that all-rounder we are always looking for?

I think we need to ask Kapil Dev to come back and play. Irfan (Pathan) was good, but he was more of a bowler. After him, Hardik Pandya is someone who can become very good. He bowls 140 kph. He is also a brilliant batsman and an outstanding fielder. And he is very young. He needs to play more games. He is good to play at the top level. We need to show faith in him. He needs to play some ODIs. In order to become a good Test player, he needs to play a lot of first-class cricket and more ODIs. But he is definitely someone who can become good. If he doesn’t, it will be his mistake. I have told him what I feel about his game and his talent. I have told him he is very capable of achieving great heights.

What about Rohit Sharma?

He is a class player. He reminds me of Inzamam-ul-Haq at his very best. He has so much time to play his shots. He is so good to watch. He makes batting look so easy. I have played with lot of greats, guys with massive records, and I can tell you Rohit is special. I wish him luck. And I hope he finishes somewhere closer to those legends (in terms of runs and trophies).

How can he carry this form into the Test arena?

Let’s just be a little more patient with him. He has played his Test cricket in different slots. Maybe that can be a factor. The kind of talent he has, there is no better batsman than Rohit. Just like there was no replacement for Rahul Dravid, I can say there is no replacement for Rohit. That’s his class.

What’s your take on Kohli?

He is a champion player. He is full of energy. Whether he is batting, bowling or fielding, he wants to make things happen. He wants to push you to achieve the limits. He is that one guy who is always there to push the button when the chips are down. He has a great future.

Earlier, we weren’t a great fielding side. But guys like Virat, Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane and Suresh Raina have made sure India’s fielding is right up there. They understand the importance of training, eating the right kind of food. Look at Virat’s footwork. He has worked so hard. He trains like boxers. Boxers have the best footwork. That has helped Virat achieve all this success. Look at the way he shifts from the front foot to back in a split second. Look at the way he steps out. It’s a treat to watch.

 

Back in the days, you were the life and soul of the team. Now you are a lot calmer. Who’s taken over that role now?

There are a lot of young guys. I enjoy with these guys. They saw us doing it and now they are doing it. Nowadays, Punjabi songs are played in the dressing room. When I was younger, the seniors used to play English, Hindi. It was a mix of everything, actually. Sachin is a music lover. Rahul had that taste of the 1980s. Laxman was more about his headphones and I don’t know what he listened to. Prayers, maybe (laughs)! But we were the ones who used to play Bollywood. Now it’s Punjabi music. Virat, Shikhar, Yuvraj (Singh) and I are all music lovers.

Does mentoring come naturally to you?

Yeah, it’s nice to share your experiences with the younger guys. I enjoy that part. I want to pass on whatever I have learnt. Sometimes, even the youngsters suggest things to me and I take it. Mentoring is something I want to do. I love to help a bowler set the field according to the conditions. I keep telling guys to ‘Own the game’, ‘Own the occasion’ and ‘Own the moment’. I have been to many dressing rooms. There is nothing you can’t achieve. If one man can achieve something, we can all achieve it.

You have a ‘FAITH’ tattoo on your hand. Do you believe in God? Do you pray?

I don’t pray. I used to pray. But I do remember Him. I do thank Him for everything. We don’t know why this happens or why that happens. But everything happens for a reason. You have to be grateful and thankful for everything. He gave me everything. Why complain? If we look up, we will find people who are more comfortable and luckier than us. But if you look down, you realise you have a lot to be thankful about. You realise you are God’s child. You realise that He is protecting you. God is something or someone I have never seen. But there is some supreme power above us. If you do good deeds, it comes back to you. When you can help, do so. Don’t shy away from that chance. We came (into this world) without anything and we go back without anything. So why save? Let’s help our people. There are a lot of people who have helped me. If anyone needs anything, I always look to do good for them.

I would love to contribute to our country. I want to do more than I have done as a cricketer. I want to make sure each and every child is educated. I hope to see everyone with a job, three meals and a home. Whether you make Rs. 1,000 crore or Rs. 1 crore, you are only going to eat thrice a day. If God gives me that chance some day, I would love to help others.

How much money do you really need? If you make a list of things you need, you will realise that it’s never-ending. But if you give that little extra to those who are needy and helpless, you are changing their life. That feeling is more satisfying than winning the World Cup.

I want to support every human being who wants to help another human being in need. I do my own thing. It’s just that I don’t tweet about it (smiles). I would love to see our country and its people safe and secure. People must not have any complaints. Robberies, rapes and murders have to stop. We are killing each other. This is our country. These are our bothers and sisters. We have so many people. We can do a lot. If that whole energy can be channelised in the right direction, we can do great things. We all need to work towards it. It won’t happen soon. But trust me, everything can happen. If other countries can, then we can too. It’s not rocket science.

(As appeared in sportstar.thehindu.com on February 15, 2016)