‘A Test century would be great’

Harbhajan believes in calling a spade a spade.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

“It’s true that I’ve ignored my batting. It’s still not late. I have been working on my batting and would love to become an all-rounder,” says Harbhajan Singh in this interview with Vijay Lokapally.

At 28, he is a veteran in Indian cricket. Making news even when not bowling, Harbhajan Singh has come to command a place in the Indian team through sheer dint of performance in all forms of the game. A tally of 314 wickets in 74 Tests puts him in the elite category of world spinners. He shares his views with Sportstar on various aspects of his game and career in this interview.

Question: Joining the 300-wicket club… How big is the landmark?

Answer: Honestly, I never thought I would come this far. It’s been ten years from my debut and 300 wickets in Tests is something that obviously comes as a huge motivation for me to go on and on. My objective is to win games for India. Wickets will come my way but they would be of greater value if they come in a winning cause. It is a big landmark considering the background I came from. It means a lot to my family too. I have worked very, very hard and I am happy and excited at the thought of having joined an elite club because I know how tough it is to take wickets in Tests.

Taking 200 wickets in India as against 100 overseas — your comments on this kind of strike rate?

We get to bowl a lot more in India and please remember that overseas the pitches are different. Now, we have fast bowlers doing more work in India also. Earlier it used to be just one little spell by the fast bowlers and the spinners would come on. And then we used to have three spinners in the Indian team. That is not the case now. And overseas we have three fast bowlers and one spinner in the playing eleven. In India you have to make adjustments frequently and I have learnt to adapt.

What kind of adjustments?

If you see the recent overseas matches I have changed a bit. The field placements change with the length you need to bowl on those pitches. The turn imparted on the ball changes. The bounce you get also guides you to vary your speed and length. There are pitches where you can’t have a silly point or a short leg and you have to think the batsmen out.

300 wickets in Test cricket... a lot of thought goes into Harbhajan's bowling.-K.R. DEEPAK

It is often said that you bowl faster and flatter…

It’s very easy from outside. You can’t just bowl slower. I know I keep varying the pace. Let these experts who talk of bowling slower try their skills against someone like (Matthew) Hayden. The bats are heavier and the boundaries shorter. These experts (former spinners) will go for 200 runs in every game.

Looking back on your career so far, one finds Harbhajan in the news for several wrong reasons. Why?

Not really. I am honest. Not many may like me for what I am, but that is how I am. I talk the truth, talk straight. I may have made mistakes and have owned up too, have sought apology also. We all learn from mistakes, don’t we? I also felt bad when I made mistakes. I was the first to say sorry to Sreesanth. It was not the right message to my fans and young cricketers. I have been in the news for good reasons too. And I know how people have stood by me.

You may have succeeded in keeping the masses pleased with your histrionics, but are you aware that most ex-cricketers and serious cricket followers feel that you need to be disciplined…

I don’t know if that is true, but tell me what’s wrong in being expressive? I don’t really care what some senior ex-cricketers have to say in this matter. Let them just watch my histrionics. Why fuss about them? I am not going to worry about these ex-cricketers. I think it comes from jealousy because they couldn’t achieve what I have achieved. I have no place for them in my book. All these experts, ex-cricketers have never helped me improve, never helped me get even a wicket.

You are repeatedly accused by one ex-cricketer of play-acting. Has television anything to do with it?

Ask Sachin (Tendulkar) or Anil bhai (Kumble). I have been with them for a decade now and would not have survived without their help. I have not changed a bit as far as my behaviour is concerned. I play with passion and I just don’t do it for the cameras. I can show my passion only if I take wickets. If there are no wickets, there are no cameras on me. My inner-circle knows the truth.

As a bowler, how much have you worked on your skills?

I have to keep working on my skills. International cricket is very, very competitive. I have learnt many things in 10 years. I have learnt to be innovative. I have learnt to work on field settings. I have learnt to read the batsman, vary the length. The batsman plays the ball in different directions and you need to control that, try and shackle him. I have learnt to keep things simple. There is still the slip, the short leg, the off-spin…cricket has not changed.

After the 2001 series against Australia, do you think you have slowly become a victim of your own reputation?

Tell me, how many times has Anil bhai taken 10 wickets in an innings? Dilip (Vengsarkar) hit three centuries at Lord’s that none of us could emulate. (Mohammad) Azharuddin scored three centuries in a row on debut. How many have been able to duplicate that? Why could he not play 100 Tests after scoring a century in his 99th? Things don’t always happen your way. There are good and bad days. But one thing is certain, that you want to perform. The 2001 series was my best no doubt, but then I have bowled better at times and still not got even one wicket. I can’t take a hat-trick in every match.

Your views on Australia as a team, both on and off the field.

On the field it is a very challenging cricket team. It has been playing very well for so many years, but with (Glenn) McGrath and (Shane) Warne gone, its attack has looked ordinary. Off the field, I hardly find time to interact. But one thing, Australia is a very, very bad loser.

You can be a handy batsman as you’ve proved a few times. How much time do you spend in the ’nets’ to improve your batting?

It’s true that I’ve ignored my batting. I should’ve been more sensible and more responsible when batting. It’s still not late. I have been working on my batting and would love to become an all-rounder. A Test century would be great.

Do you believe that batsmen get more than they deserve when compared to the bowlers?

Yes, big time. A bowler doesn’t get the same praise for getting five wickets as a batsman gets for a century. It is the same all over the world and not just in India. Why can’t a brilliant spell of three for 30 be given the same importance as a 50 off 80 balls?

Can you pick five of your most memorable dismissals?

Not five, but six. 1: Michael Hussey bowled in Bangalore (2008). It was a doosra and spun like a leg-spinner, from sixth stump to hit the middle-stump; 2: Mohammad Yousuf bowled in Kolkata (2007). Ball pitched outside off, he went for a cover-drive and was bowled leg-stump; 3: Steve Waugh caught at short-leg (S. S. Das) in Chennai (2001). He was well set and the extra bounce took the glove; 4: Carl Hooper caught-and-bowled in Mumbai (2002). He went for a big cover drive and was foxed by the flight; 5: Sachin Tendulkar caught-and-bowled in Challenger Series in Bangalore (2003). It was normal off-spin, but he misread and skied it; 6: Brian Lara caught at slip (Rahul Dravid) in St. Kitts in ODI (2006). He went for a big flick and got an outside edge.

The most difficult batsman you have bowled to?

Brian Lara. He plays the ball like a table tennis ball. He moves so skilfully and plays the ball very, very late. He has great control over his drives and has an astounding range of shots. He is an amazing batsman and always a most valuable wicket to have.

Which captain has understood you the most?

Harbhajan can bat, too, and he is paying more attention to this skill now.-S.SUBRAMANIUM

Sourav Ganguly helped me develop as a bowler. He backed me and always helped me read the situation. He used to set the field for me and always encouraged me. But I find (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni as the one who understands me the best. He gives me a free hand and wants me to be my own captain.

Your views on sledging.

Sledging is fine as long as you are not abusive. Personal remarks are not welcome. You can taunt, but not cross a certain line. You can be aggressive, but not to the extent of hurting someone’s feelings with personal remarks. A spinner can be as aggressive as a fast bowler. Is it a rule that only fast bowlers can glare? But I firmly believe that more than you the bat and the ball should do the talking for you.

Your views on critics.

Critics motivate you. It is their opinion and you must learn to respect that, but then things can go bad when criticism becomes personal. Let them blast me if I don’t do well. But the critics often forget that no individual can perform well all the time. And no individual would harm his career by not working hard. I know what I’m doing for the team and I should not be slammed if I am giving hundred per cent...

Your immediate goals?

To see India emerge the number one Test team in the world and also to win the series in New Zealand (in March). We have never done well in New Zealand, but we now have the team to beat New Zealand in New Zealand.