''It's good to be aggressive on the field"

S. DINAKAR

HARBHAJAN SINGH'S often delightful off-spin is nothing but a reflection of his vibrant personality. The Sportstar caught up with the lively Punjab cricketer, after his Man-of-the-Match-winning performance, in the recent Chennai Test against the West Indies.

V. GANESAN

Question: You are bristling with life. Can you shed light on your personality?

Answer: I have been like this since childhood. I try to be happy and bring happiness to everyone around me. Even in the dressing room of the Punjab team, it is like this, full of jokes and wit. I am a very jolly person.

I am also a very firm person. If I want to wear a particular pair of clothes, I would wear only them. If I wanted to buy groundnuts for two rupees from one particular shop, I would only get it from that shop and nowhere else, even if the folks at home said no. I am always with people. I can make friends easily.

There are several stories about your little pranks. Can you recall a couple of them? Also any moment of fun and laughter that has stayed in your mind?

Once we took Andrew Leipus for a ride in Zimbabwe, it was all light-hearted of course. We mimicked the voice of our manager Chetan Chauhan and told him that the next morning, before the start of the match, he needed to come to the ground in formals, and not in his usual attire. We told him that we had a team-photograph session in the morning and everyone needed to come in blazer and tie. So the next morning, there was Andrew, in his tie and suit only to find there was no team photograph! These things keep happening!

Myself and Yuveraj jell well together. When we start laughing, we never stop. Once we were having breakfast in Goa. The topic was such that both of us laughed uncontrollably. Then the man, attending to our table, also began laughing with us, and he did not stop even after his supervisor started shouting at him. The entire team had breakfast, but myself and Yuveraj left without taking it! Our stomachs though were filled with laughter! Even in the bus, we were laughing all the way.

In Sri Lanka, we frightened Dinesh Mongia at night, dressing up as ghosts. The next day was a rest day, and we decided to have some fun. We wore the masks we had bought from a nearby shop and they were very convincing ones. We rang the room bell, Mongia opened the door, saw the ghosts, and he fell down in sheer fright! And we also fell down laughing - myself, Yuveraj and J. P. Yadav. Mongia soon realised what was happening and he started laughing with us.

How did the nickname 'Bhajji' come about? Or is it 'Bhajju?'

This I myself do not know. My team-mates kept the name for me. First it was 'Bhajju', now it has become 'Bhajji.' In the beginning, I was called 'Plaha,' my family name.

Jokes and laughter apart, what kind of a person is the real Harbhajan?

I am a very simple person. I have great faith in God. I am not particularly fond of roaming around. Even on television, I watch only cricket.

The happiest and saddest moments of your life so far?

When I performed well for India against Australia, that was my happiest moment. At the same time I am sad that my dad, Sardar Sardev Singh, is no longer around to cherish my success. He would have been the happiest father in the world.

Your father was your inspiration, isn't it?

That is something which has caused a great deal of pain to me. I would have been so much more happier had he been living. Whatever I have been doing, it is only for him. Now at home, I have my mother and two sisters. I have five sisters, three of them are married. After my father's death, I am the only male member in the family. I have a lot of responsibility. Dad is no more, that is a fact of life.

Can you tell us about your early days in Jalandhar?

We were from the economically weaker section. My dad worked very hard. He had five daughters and I was the only son. There were times, when we were not sure whether we would have food to eat in the evening or not. He did not lose courage. He was a self-made man. He finally managed to build a house for us. He had his own business, where he built valves. He brought an old machine; he worked very hard on that machine, for hours together. He got my sisters married. He struggled a lot in his life. Perhaps I am reaping the fruits of his hard work. I have not worked that hard.

Being the only male child, you must have been pampered a fair bit too.

I was the pet in my house. Everybody loved me in my house. 'Get him this, get him that,' they used to say. My grandmother used to drop me at school. Then she used to fetch me back from school. I remember those days. My grandmother would not even let a fly touch me. I would be like a king in my house. Whatever I asked for, it would come to me within a minute. Even my parents, they would not stop me from doing anything.

How did cricket happen?

My dad wanted to me play some game. In the beginning, I joined judo in school. I never used to derive much fun out of judo. I used to be thrown around a lot! Then I started playing badminton, my cousin brother was a badminton coach. I was all right in badminton, but it was cricket that was close to my heart. Then I told my dad, I have to go to the ground, play only cricket. Soon, I was at the cricket academy, and it was here that I got the confidence that, 'yes, I can do something.' I performed well in the under-16 and 19 categories. Within two or three years, I was in the Ranji Trophy side. I played against Delhi, got five to six wickets. Had success against Karnataka too. And things began to happen.

Your memories on your Test debut?

I remember everything about my debut against the Aussies in Bangalore. First of all, I was worried how I could meet and talk to so many big names - Mohammed Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar. That was the biggest worry in my mind. I was extremely quiet before them. But I was never made to feel that I was a newcomer in the Indian team. They treated me with a lot of love. I remember my first wicket - Greg Blewett. He was bowled by an off-break.

Then there was that turbulent phase in your career, your action was under a cloud. Soon came the NCA controversy?

That was a bad time for me. I was hurt when my action was questioned. I believe there was nothing wrong with my action. When I went to England to meet Fred Titmus, even then I was confident that it would be all right. Still, I had to go through the formalities. I wish to thank the Board and the senior players who supported me during that testing time.

As for the National Cricket Academy controversy, an atmosphere was created where it was made to seem that I had murdered someone, things were not that serious. I looked back and told myself, if I was wrong, I would try to improve. If I was not wrong, then I would reply with my performance on the cricket field. God helped me. I was happy I was able to prove myself on the field of play. Captain Sourav Ganguly and Anil Bhai, though he was not playing in the series, were always there for me. My rapport with Ganguly has been of a considerable help to my bowling.

You replied strongly, bowling India to a remarkable series win over Australia in 2001.

They came here as a team that won everything. When I dismissed Colin Miller in Chennai, the last Australian second innings wicket, I was relieved that I had done my job. I thought we would get the 150-odd runs required to win. We could not lose the series from here, I thought. Then, sitting in the pavilion while we were chasing, I was tense, naturally. We had worked so hard in the series. I also had the belief that if we needed to make 15 to 20 runs, then I would get them. When I went inside, I was completely peaceful. I was confident. I cannot explain to you in words, that series against Australia.

What went through your mind, during those dramatic final moments in Chennai, when you had to finish the job yourself, with the willow?

I remember everything. McGrath came charging in, and I took my stance. I recall how Steve Waugh removed point and had a midwicket for me. Two of my earlier shots had travelled to midwicket. Luckily, I was able to play my next shot to point, and we ran two. The hard work put in by each one of us had paid off.

Coming to your performances this season, are you satisfied with your returns?

This season I am happy with the way I have bowled, even if that has not always been reflected in the wickets. Myself and Kumble bowled India to victory over England at Mohali. It was a greenish pitch, but I enjoyed bowling on the first day. I am hurt when some say we deliver only on tailor-made pitches. That's not the case. Then, in Jamaica, I reached a 100 Test wickets, had my first five-wicket haul on foreign soil and that was satisfying. That spell in Jamaica enhanced my confidence levels. In England, and then in the ICC Champions Trophy, I bowled to a good rhythm. The win in the Leeds Test was special. It was very satisfying when I could keep the Sri Lankans, who are good players of off-spin, quiet in Colombo, and pick up wickets as well. I have enjoyed my bowling, which is important. I am working on my variations, I am also striving to contribute with the bat.

The scalps you remember in the first two Tests against the Windies in India.

Carl Hooper in Mumbai. I deceived him in flight. In Chennai we had set a field for Wavell Hinds, where there was a lot of room for him to strike on the on-side. He played some shots, but finally had to get out. He was trying to hit every ball. He has to be extraordinarily lucky, if he can survive an entire day, hitting like that. There was some bounce for the spinners both in Mumbai and Chennai, and I bowled the right line, and brought in the variations.

The wickets you relished in your career so far, rather how you plotted the downfall of the batsmen?

My first wicket, that of Blewett. Then, Steve Waugh in Chennai, second innings. He was caught at short-leg, from an off-break. He had stepped out and then tried to defend. Then the caught and bowled dismissal in Delhi, diving to my right to dismiss Zimbabwe's Stuart Carlisle. I beat him in flight. Then I got Alex Tudor in England this year. He was caught at slip, off a leg-cutter. Then I got Andrew Caddick at Leeds. The ball pitched on the middle stump, took the off . Caddick might be a tailender, but I consider it among my best balls. The batsman did not have a clue as to what happened. I like it when I beat the batsmen in flight. Once Andrew Flintoff tried to step out to me, was foxed.

Being a spinner doesn't stop you from being aggressive.

It's good to be aggressive on the field. Just because you are a spinner, you need not be quiet. True, we cannot bowl bouncers, but we can be aggressive. I just go out there and play. And I enjoy. But if someone says something, he will listen to something from me.

What have you learnt from cricket? You are the kind who likes to help out the less privileged.

As a human being, I try my best to help the less privileged. If I can do something for the children who are handicapped, nothing would give me more satisfaction. I love children. Especially the mischievous ones. Looking at them, I am reminded of my childhood. I am striving to lead my life peacefully off the field. I am not that quiet. I have learnt everything from cricket, I have been in the team, since young. I have faith in God. I read Sikh scriptures every morning. It gives me the confidence and the belief that the day would go well.