You should embrace success with your head bowed

S. DINAKAR

HARBHAJAN SINGH is a lively young man with spring in his steps, a smile on his face, and fire in his eyes. And there's a touch of the oriental magic in his fingers.

-N. BALAJI

The home season has been quite memorable for Harbhajan Singh, with the Sardar spelling the doom of 25 batsmen in five Tests, against England and Zimbabwe. Operating in tandem with Anil Kumble, forming a feared spin combination.

He's made a splash in the ODIs too, with his five-wicket haul in Mumbai setting up a win for India, only to see the home batsmen blowing away the opportunity as Nasser Hussain's men levelled the series.

The Sportstar caught up with this Punjab cricketer before India's ODI against Zimbabwe in Kochi.

Question: At this stage of your career, when you are an established Indian cricketer, what is the advice that you value most?

Answer: My father Sardar Sardev Singh's words have always been with me. He told me when I was young that 'Look at the tree. It bends when it bears fruits. Similarly when you embrace success, you should do it with your head bowed. It is God who has given you everything. You have to accept that and stay simple and modest.' I have always striven to be like that.

I remember what Sachin Tendulkar told me too. He said a cricketer should be totally focussed on the game - think about it and nothing else. It should be his life, his everything. Sachin is like that, I am striving to be like that.

Being an India cricketer means a lot to you, isn't it?

It is everything for me. How many of us get an opportunity to play for the country. There are crores of us, only a chosen few receive an opportunity to represent India. You should give nothing but your very best.

On the field you are fairly aggressive for a spinner?

I think it helps to be an aggressive cricketer. Look when you wear the India cap, you fight for the country. If the opposition players say a few needless things, I am not the kind to keep silent.

To what extent do you think cricket is a mental battle?

The game is primarily played in the mind. In international cricket you got to be tough. In how a player handles pressure lies his true test. When I made the comeback against Australia there was a fair deal of pressure on me. I went into the Tests in a relaxed frame of mind.

The home series against England and Zimbabwe have gone well for you ... for most part.

It is satisfying. I played a part in India's series wins. I am happy with the way I am bowling. And it is always a joy bowling with Anil Kumble. There is a healthy competition between us. One thing people must understand is that we are both attacking bowlers and there will be days when one of us will get less or more wickets. That doesn't mean one of us is bowling badly. During the period he was out with an injury, I was always looking forward to bowling with him.

There is a feeling that the Indian spinners strike only on tailor-made pitches.

I got five wickets on the first day of the Mohali Test against England. The wicket was green, and it was not a surface suitable for spinners. Yet there was some bounce, some freshness, and I enjoyed bowling on it. It was not a pitch that was cracking.

Looking back, you had a relatively barren period in the Bangalore Test against England and then in the Challenger Series.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I was among the wickets again. As cricketers we go through all kinds of situations. You have to believe in your ability, back yourself to succeed.

What do you think are your major weapons as an off-spinner?

I like to keep the batsmen guessing. The off-break is naturally the principal ball. Here it is important to bowl the right line, outside the off-stump or off-stump. The away drifter has to be the surprise weapon, and if I overbowl that delivery, then the batsmen will read me better. The leg-cutter is handy too, so is the top-spinner. I use the differing levels of shine on the two sides of the cricket ball as the innings progresses. Changes in pace, flight, the extent of turn, and the use of the crease, are all important factors. Then bounce is a key element. Extra bounce gets me wickets, especially when the close-in cordon is in place. I can get some balls to skid too and have been working on a yorker as well.

Bowling is all about the ability to create and maintain pressure, isn't it?

That's the key. The pressure must be from both ends, only then things begin to happen. This is why I enjoy bowling with Anil bhai.

There is a feeling that on occasions you bowl too quickly and that you are a much better bowler when you are slower through the air.

People have said these things, but there is no standard rule. It depends on the wicket and the situation. I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses. This doesn't mean I have stopped learning. I am learning all the time and am willing to listen to suggestions.

Which was the wicket that gave you the most satisfaction in the two home series?

I think Andy Flower in Delhi. I bowled a series of sharp off-spinners to him and then got him with a flighted delivery that drifted in, didn't turn much, but went through quickly after pitching. He was surprised and was caught at short-leg. That wicket gave me a lot of satisfaction because Andy Flower is a quality player who has got a lot of runs against us in recent times.

And who has been the most challenging batsman to bowl to?

It has to be Adam Gilchrist. He can turn a match around so quickly. A very dangerous player. But after the Mumbai Test, I was able to get him out before he settled down.

The series against India, when you were at your very best, was the only setback for Australia. After that they have been on a winning spree again. They have a mighty batting line-up. What worked for you?

That series does bring back golden memories. I bowled with a nice rhythm and received wonderful help on the field. It was a great series as well and I had more work to do in the absence of Anil bhai. Dismissing batsmen like Hayden, Gilchrist, the Waugh brothers and Ponting was an unforgettable experience. It makes me proud as an Indian.

Coming to the ODIs, the spell against England at Mumbai came at the right time for you. You were either dropped or rested in the previous game at Delhi.

Yes, I didn't play in Delhi for whatever reason, and was keen to perform well in Mumbai. There was some bounce in the wicket and the fielders supported me brilliantly. I ended up picking five wickets. Actually I have been bowling well in the ODIs. I did well in Sri Lanka too, against batsmen who get to play Murali in the nets. The Lankan batsmen, in fact, wanted to see through my share of overs. I am comfortable bowling in the ODIs. The emphasis is on accuracy, but you can still try your variations. I probably use my away drifter more in ODIs. It is a very useful ball when the batsman jumps out.

Did the fact that there was another off-spinner in the Indian squad in Sarandeep Singh for most part of the season keep you on the tenterhooks?

I have won matches for India single-handedly, performed at the highest level of cricket, so I am not really bothered by an additional off-spinner in the squad. It is Sarandeep who still has to prove himself at this level and my best wishes are always with him.

The innings the Indian bowlers would want to forget in a hurry would have to be that Douglas Marillier effort in Faridabad.

Some people are reading too much into it. It was just a freak innings. I have not seen shots being played like that in any form of cricket. Probably, I saw them only in the movie Lagaan! It was just his day. These things happen in every walk of life.

Coming back to Tests, you endured an agonising day in the Nagpur Test, where you completely ran out of luck - the ball rolled on to the stumps off Trevor Gripper's blade but the bails were not disturbed! Catches too were put down. It must have been frustrating.

They are difficult times, but at least you are aware that you are bowling to a nice rhythm and know that the wickets would ultimately come. And when wickets come, they come in a bagful. That's how it works in cricket!

A word about Muttiah Muralitharan's astonishing returns in recent times. So much has been said about his action.

People have a right to say what they feel but let's give Murali his due. He is a class act, has amazing variety. To perform so consistently over a period of time, getting over 400 Test wickets, is commendable. Whatever may be said about his action, his achievements are still extraordinary. He's like Sachin in Lanka.

Anything to say about those who helped you along the way Harbhajan?

In the list of people who have helped me, Sourav Ganguly would be there right at the top. He fought for my inclusion before the Australia series, and has always been a source of encouragement to me. Then I can never forget the guidance from Kumble before the Australian series. He himself was not playing due to an injury, but was only too happy to help me out.

And coach John Wright?

'Dil ka achcha aadmi hai' - he's a good man at heart. He genuinely wants the team to do well, cares for us, and even during periods he is unhappy with us, we know that is only for the good of the team.

The tour of the West Indies beckons. You and the Indian team would be keen to register a long overdue away Test series victory. For the spinners too it is an opportunity to prove they can win matches overseas.

Absolutely. We are all extremely keen to win an away series. We have won the odd Test, like in Kandy and Bulawayo, but a series victory has eluded us. The West Indies tour will be a very important one for us, and we are all keyed up. I am looking forward to the duel with the Caribbean great, Brian Lara.