In his bid for survival, Harbhajan Singh came close to quitting cricket after his father's demise. Since then, he has come a long way. In a free-wheeling chat before the World Cup camp got underway in Bangalore, the feisty off-spinner talked of, among other things, the journey, his evolution as an all-rounder and the World Cup. Excerpts:Ten years ago when your father passed away and you had made up your mind to migrate abroad, did you think that you'd play your third World Cup?
No. The only important thing was to look after my family. I was contemplating going abroad where I was ready to do odd jobs. But God has been kind. I took 28 or 29 wickets in four Ranji games and there was no looking back.
How different is it when you are playing for fun and suddenly it is to keep your family going?
It is completely different. At one stage, it was about playing for India because I had to look after my family, but as time passed, I looked at the bigger picture, the responsibility that comes with playing for India. The best part is my family, especially my mother, never pressurised me.
Who helped you decide that you should not go abroad?
God, it has to be him. Khuda chahey to ashk bhi sailaab le aayein, khuda chahey to sagar bhi kankard na duba payey.
A third World Cup becomes even more special in such a backdrop?
Special would be a wrong word, it is a bigger responsibility. Earlier, it was a battle for survival for me and my family. Now, it is about doing something memorable.
Is that the reason you want to be in the limelight, be it while bowling, batting or even in celebration?
Celebrations happen at spur of the moment. I am an honest, emotional Punjabi man who likes to be praised whenever it is due. I have worked hard on my game and personality but some people can't tolerate my success.
You seem to have a point to prove.
Yes, I do. We are in a performance-driven field --- if a batsman hits you for a six, you want to get him out because you want to show him and everyone else that you are better. I've won many battles against Ricky Ponting and he tries to get back at me at every given opportunity. Sport is confrontational and that suits my character.
Is aggression your biggest asset?
No, my biggest asset is adrenaline, Punjabi hoon na. The thrill of being on that stage is unparalleled. I have over 650 international wickets and more than half of them are a result of adrenaline.
Is Bollywood calling as well?
That is the problem, I am often misunderstood. By big stage and adrenalin I mean representing my country and not doing films. I may come across as a song and dance type but there is another side to me which is different but people do not want to see it as it doesn't make for a good story. The world thinks I am someone who loves Punjabi dhinchik-dhinchik music but the fact is I am hooked on to Sufi. My favourites are Gurudas Maan ji, Debi Makhsoospuri ji and Satinder Sartaj. Their songs have a perspective which is similar to mine.
Are these signs of turning 30?
We all evolve. These songs put in perspective things that are important for a celebrity in India. There is a line in Sartaj's song Ibadat Kar which goes: Kyu hankar karda a ve, ek din khaak ho jaana hai, tere to jaanvar changey jinna di khaal ban di hai (Why be arrogant, one day you'll turn into ashes, animals are better, at least their skins are used after they die).
I am at a stage where I want to impact as many lives as possible outside my family. This is what I mean when I say that the World Cup is not an opportunity, it is a responsibility.
For an event of such national importance, is it off the mark to say that a World Cup win will be a gift to Sachin Tendulkar?
The question that reporters ask, "Do you want to win this World Cup for Sachin Tendulkar?" is bizarre. The World Cup is about the country and not about one man. We want to win it for every Indian, including the best cricketer and human being I know, Sachin paaji.
If we were to win the Cup and Tendulkar retires from one-day internationals on a high, how'd you feel?
I don't want to speak for him but I think the Tendulkar I know has a lot left in him. Irrespective of whether we win the Cup or not, Tendulkar should stay on.
If you were given a choice, would you like a five-wicket haul or a hundred in the World Cup against your name?
Earlier, it would have been a five wicket-haul but my expectations have changed since I got those two Test tons. Now, I'd want both.
How important was it to improve your batting?
People don't respect you if you can't bat. Things have been different since I got those two Test hundreds (against New Zealand). My confidence and thought process have had a positive impact.
Does batting for longer periods help you plan better as a bowler?
Yes, it does. Once you understand the value of every run scored, you bowl with a lot more purpose and field with desperation.
Could the WC be another step in your evolution as an all-rounder?
I hope so. Even earlier, I used to bat reasonably well but in the past year I have worked hard with Gary Kirsten and I think a bit like a batsman when I go out to bat.
Did criticism as a bowler play a part in your improvement as a batsman?
My idea was to give myself one more chance to succeed and a chance to shut the pundits up. Thanks to them, I've evolved as a batsman.
(Dinesh Chopra works for ESPN STAR SPORTS)