This Sunday, the stakes will be upped, the swords will be sharpened and you might get a peculiar feeling — one that tells you, 'something's about to happen'. Well, it is. By Sunday night, the Australians will be in town, ahead of a series that is billed by most to be modern cricket's most dramatic gladiatorial battle, much more than the Ashes, even more than India vs Pakistan.
Through whatever ensues, the man most likely to be the cynosure of all eyes, is Harbhajan Singh, who earned the sobriquet Turbanator after that unforgettable winter of 2000-01. Here, in an exclusive chat, Harbhajan opens up on what has been an extraordinary year and on what lies ahead.
The last year's been pretty dramatic. When you look back at it and with that in mind, how are you looking at the future?
I don't look back. That's just not the way I am built. For me, whatever's gone is gone, and I do believe that looking back is a waste of my time and energy. As for the immediate future, with Australia coming and a full season of cricket ahead, it obviously looks very exciting. I'm just hoping to play all the Tests and one-dayers, contribute with ball and bat and hoping to do well for the team and country.
So you're saying the past never plays a role for you?
Not really, it doesn't. If you look back you'll get stuck in life. So any time I think I'm looking back or letting something that's happened in the past affect my present, I try and banish that thought from my head, I try and free myself of it. I don't try and keep opening up old files, look up old records and all… kya karna hai un sab se? Jo beet gayi, voh khatam ho chukka hai.
With Anil Kumble not doing as well recently as he has in the past, how do you view your role in your partnership?
Like I've always viewed it. It's very important to back each other up, always. Anil has been a great spinner, a great player who has shouldered the burden for over 15-16 years. Over this time and the time I've played with him, sometimes he takes wickets, sometimes I do. We've been there for each other, backed each other up. I've been very lucky to have played alongside such a great spinner and have always enjoyed bowling with him. It's nice having quality at the other end.
What does a partnership mean to you?
That, unlike what is generally assumed, it's not only about batting stands. You have to bowl well in pairs to create pressure, tow in games. If he (Kumble) is keeping the other end tight, I attack. Or vice-versa. It depends on who's bowling well and who's not on that particular day, who's bowling better in those conditions. And it means maintaining constant vigil. You can't suddenly relax, saying 'Anil Kumble is there'. It's my job to take wickets, to win games for my country. You have to be on your toes all the time to be involved all the time. In fielding too, you have to think, the ball is going to come to me. That's how you constantly improve.
In the recent Lanka series, you led the attack well against batsmen who play spin well. Do you change gears mentally while playing good players of spin?
Frankly, nothing like that goes through my mind. I always keep things very simple. My logic is, they are good enough to play for their country, as I am for mine. You bowl well, keep on bowling well. At the end of the day, I look to play well, whether the guy at the other end is South African, Sri Lankan or Pakistani or Australian, whether he is considered a good player of spin or not. This is international cricket.
Your finest hour came against Australia. What goes through your mind ahead of an Aussie series?
To be honest, they are a very good side, they've won simply everywhere. So if we have to beat a good team, we have to be on top of our own game, there's no two ways about it. See, I play with a lot of passion always, the difference with the Australians is that they put a lot of challenges ahead of one when they play. I respond. I love challenges and I always want to do well against Australia, because if you do manage something special, you know you've done so against the best team in the world. I like to fight, I like to keep going, I like it when there's that extra edge because the Aussies won't let you win. They never let up. They' keep throwing everything at you and you have to stand there and then, throw that back at them.
Post all that happened in the last series, will this one see a renewed attempt to make a difference on the cricketing field against a team that has gotten to you as you have got to them?
Everybody goes through lots of drama, and yes, you make mistakes and learn from them. If I didn't make mistakes, I would be god, right? If people learn from those mistakes, they won't repeat them. In the IPL I made a mistake. In Australia, I didn't. It wasn't my fault. We went there to play good cricket, we played good cricket. We won the one-day series, we won a Test, we did extremely well, we rattled them on the field.
You're tired of all the drama?
Yes, I'm sick of all the bad boy crap. I have no interest in hearing about how controversies follow me wherever I go. I'm going to stay away from all that shit and concentrate on not getting involved in any kind of crap. And this is how it will be, not just in my cricketing life but also in life generally. For too long, what I've said or done has been the focal point of things rather than my cricket.
Ricky Ponting, who is a world-beating batsman and averages in the high 50s, has struggled in India. What could be the reason for that?
I don't know, ask him (laughs). But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he'll struggle some more and keep his India record intact. Otherwise, he's such a strong player that if he gets going, he just keeps going. So our aim would be to make sure he won't get runs. We don't want him to score in India and will do our best to try and stop him.
India go into this series with a good chance of gaining the advantage from Australia. Several legends have retired (McGrath, Warne, now Gilchrist) and the spinners are inexperienced…
Even when they had all these players, we always believed we could beat them. The faces don't matter, the names don't matter. We always had self-belief, and more recently, we've proved that belief. We haven't looked at the faces or records and been intimidated, we've just gone into series wanting to beat them. I always believed Australia were a very beatable side. If we played to our potential, our strengths, the best of our cricket, I always believed we could beat them.
What have your recent troubles taught you?
That's it's always important to learn from your mistakes. I've learnt my lessons, good and bad, the good things teach you stuff as well. And this is not just over the past eight-nine months , it's been a lifetime of learning and I'm still learning every day. But yes, the recent months have been an experience.
You've had a long career, and like anyone else, faced ups and downs. Do you think you have now settled into your best rhythm?
Well, I can never really say this is my best rhythm, at any time. I don't believe in rhythm, it can get spoilt or created in one day. I've been bowling well, I'm enjoying myself. Sometimes, when you bowl really well, you don't get wickets, sometimes you don't bowl well and pick up a bunch. I'm just looking forward to getting the better of the Australians.
There was some criticism of your bowling in Sri Lanka; that you showed a reluctance to bowl from around the stumps. Is it just something you don't like to do?
I know what I've done in Lanka was always for my team and that mattered to me. If they (critics) were as good in their time, they would have taken 800 wickets or scored 20,000 runs in Test cricket. People are there to make comments, it doesn't bother me. I'm bowling well, I took wickets, the team is happy. I won the game for India in Galle. My country matters to me, and that's the bottomline. People can go on complaining. Do it this way, do it that way, you still have to bowl to get people out, round or over, or whatever. That's what matters.
India are at a sensitive state at the moment, with youngsters making their way in and some seniors on the way out. You are one of the few links between the youngsters and seniors, between the ODI and Test team. How do you view your role?
Yes, my role is very important. There are young players coming in, we have to make them believe there is no senior-junior divide, we are all just playing for one team, for India. If you're in the team, you're good enough, that's why you're there. That attitude has to be passed on to youngsters, we have to give them confidence, make them comfortable. See they give their best.
And about some legends, some friends, being on their way out?
It's a tricky question. All I can say is that they're all great players and I wish them luck. At the end of the day, everyone has to go. It could be my day tomorrow. They've been fantastic role models. They've given their best, they always do. That's how I view them.