`It feels great to be known as a match-winner'

The spin is very commanding. The tight grip just about conveys the state of his mind as he tests the batsmen. But Harbhajan Singh, when he reflects on his five-year-old career, continues to be a keen student of the game, wanting to improve, adds a few more weapons and become a complete spinner.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

The spin is very commanding. The tight grip just about conveys the state of his mind as he tests the batsmen. But Harbhajan Singh, when he reflects on his five-year-old career, continues to be a keen student of the game, wanting to improve, adds a few more weapons and become a complete spinner.

"Kumble (left) is great. He's such a great role model. As a bowler, as a person, as a colleague. He's such an inspiration. I would like to model myself on him," says Harbhajan Singh. -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

This season would indicate his progress. It would also indicate his recovery from the finger injury, which became such big news. That he did not need a surgery was welcome but his ability to bowl like before still is a mystery.

"I've recovered and am confident. The injury was scary no doubt but I've worked hard to get back my rhythm. I suppose I'm in the best frame of mind to take on New Zealand. We've a few scores to settle and what better than contribute in a big way,'' said Harbhajan, insisting that the finger injury was not part of history.

The off-spinner has grown as an attacking, match-winning bowler, and currently looks the best prospect in the company of veteran Anil Kumble to guide India to some significant wins. "It'll be great if we could win in Australia. It's a dream to beat Australia in Australia and we stand a good chance,'' he stressed.

How then was it bowling in front of the home crowd? "Well, the mental pressure is more in home series. It's there when you bowl overseas too but then we've gained a lot from the trio of Srinath, Nehra and Zaheer. When on tour they're required to bowl more. We spinners play the supporting role.''

Harbhajan acquired the match-winner's status during the home triumph against Australia. "It feels great to be known as a match-winner. Let me tell you that the support of the crowd counts a lot. I enjoy the pressure because it brings the best out of you. I know I've to work harder but then it improves my game if I need to constantly be on the lookout for wickets. I honestly enjoy it,'' said Harbhajan, who has been overlooked for the Arjuna Award honours despite performances to back his case.

In Harbhajan's opinion, the turning point was obviously the Kolkata Test against Australia. "It gave me the boost of my life but I think I enjoyed as much in the series against England at home. I thought I bowled well in Zimbabwe, in Sri Lanka, where I was always looking to experiment. I bowled well but didn't get wickets. It's not always possible to get wickets though. Against England, at Mohali and Ahmedabad, I became confident of my art and gained the support of my mates, especially Anil Kumble.''

Harbhajan just admires Kumble. "He's great. He's such a great role model. As a bowler, as a person, as a colleague. He's such an inspiration. I would like to model myself on him. We're both wicket-takers. It's amazing how he ties up the batsmen. He's a proven match-winner and it's great to have a partner like him. He didn't have a bowler to support him for some time and I take great pride that I could provide him that support. The team has done well whenever we've played together. It pays to be an attacking bowler and Kumble has always been an attacking bowler. I've learnt so much from him.''

Former England captain Tony Greig shakes hands with Harbhajan Singh, after receiving the ball with which the Indian spinner performed a hat-trick against Australia in the Kolkata Test, 2001. Greig purchased the ball for Rs. 55,000 during an auction of cricket memorabilia in Bangalore on September 12. — Pic. K. BHAGYA PRAKASH-

Kumble's response is predictable, as humble as his personality. "It's nice of Bhajji to say so but honestly I've only shared my experience with him. He's a very good learner and that's a good point to have if you want to improve. He's a very talented bowler and it helps to be a keen learner. He realises that to be respected in this game you need to keep improving. As in all walks of life, in cricket too you have to learn to enjoy the game. It's a simple philosophy if you ask me. The more number of overs you bowl the more you improve. I think he has the quality to become a complete bowler. He's still very young and is able to adjust quickly. I know people talk of this adjustment when you shift from one-day cricket to Test cricket but I think the job remains the same. You need to bowl well to get wickets in both forms of cricket. I like to see attacking bowlers like Bhajji. He's got various means to get the batsmen out," said Kumble.

Of late, Harbhajan has been working on means to increase his wicket-taking repertoire. "I've been working on my drifter, yorker, outswinger (with the semi new ball). It helps a lot in one-dayers, you get leg-before or get the batsmen caught in the slip.''

As Harbhajan noted, confidence always rises from big performance. He cites an example to push his statement. "Take my hat-trick at Kolkata. Believe me I innovated, bowling three different balls. Before the Test I was concentrating on playing the next match and that's why I could raise my level when it mattered. I really went all out in that Test match.''

Patience, in Harbhajan's words, combined with will power, was the key factor. "I'm always hungry to take wickets. I've learnt this from Kumble. He's always proving people wrong. He's taken 300 wickets in Test cricket.''

Harbhajan confided that his strength lay in his control on temper and bowling. "I used to get angry earlier but not now. I think with time I've learnt to temper my anger. My patience to bear the pain has increased. The responsibilities on my shoulders too have made me a strong man. I've to carry the team.''

Has he set any goals? "Yes, I've a set a few goals. Short-term goals. I want to be the highest wicket-taker when we play Australia. I want to play long, keep winning matches, winning series for India overseas. Big players always win series for their team and to be one I have to be like Sachin, Azhar, Srinath, Kumble. I know I can do it. I'm happy to support Kumble and learn from him.''

What keeps Harbhajan going? He says: "to tell you the truth one statement I cherish the most. Sachin told me `you're a champion bowler.' What better compliment you can have. The best batsman in the world says this for you,'' says Harbhajan, now Manager (Commercial), Indian Airlines at Amritsar.

As he gears up for the season, a much-improved Harbhajan promises to step into Kumble's shoes as a trusted match-winner. The Kiwis and Aussies better watch out!