Ravichandran Ashwin's shoddy overseas performance in recent times might have enhanced Harbhajan Singh's chances of a return to the national side but the experienced off-spinner says he is "not competing" with the Tamil Nadu tweaker for a place in the Indian team.
"In all these years, I have only had one competitor. That's me myself. I have never liked competing with anyone (read Ashwin) and it has remained like that over the years. International sport is a lonely journey. You compete with yourself and try to grow as a cricketer," Harbhajan told PTI in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
"No point in competing with two, three or four people. Try your best and leave it for others to judge. Also I don't want to say a single word about a current India player," Harbhajan said.
Ashwin was ineffective during India's disastrous tours of South Africa and New Zealand and received flak from former spinners Maninder Singh and Narendra Hirwani. In fact, former captain Sourav Ganguly called for Harbhajan's return to the national team.
Harbhajan has been out of the India team for one year but the 33-year-old spinner as always is relishing the challenge to fight his way back into national side.
Ask if he had set any time-frame for himself, he replied, "The operative word here I believe is not age but motivation. Age is just a number. If someone can perform at 45, who will stop that fellow from playing top-level cricket.
"For me, it's the motivation and passion to play the game at the highest level. I still want to play for India and it's important to realise how badly you want that. I will continue playing as long as I can enjoy playing for India," Harbhajan said.
For the man, who has nearly 700 international wickets across three international formats including 413 in Tests, it has been a "learning experience" of grinding it out in domestic cricket match after match after having enjoyed hero like-status in the Indian team for more than a decade.
"It is tough to play domestic cricket after playing more than 100 Tests (101) and 200-odd ODIs (229). But then adverse situations are testimony to one's character. Either you face the challenges in life head on or back out. And I am not someone to back out from challenges," Harbhajan said.
"I am not the only person to face these tough career situations. There has been numerous examples of sportsmen fighting it out gutsily. Only person who can wriggle me out of this situation is myself. I am working hard and getting results also. There are concerned people (selectors) who will take a call as to when I can be brought back in the national side," Harbhajan said.
Ask him about his philosophy of attacking bowling, he explains that it's not only about having close-in fielders.
"This is a wrong concept that you become an attacking bowler by placing close-in fielders. Your field placings are based on match situations. If you are playing on a track that doesn't offer turn and bounce, it's useless to keep a close-in fielder. The ball will never get to him," he said.
"If you are playing on flat tracks, fielders should be kept in positions where batsmen can offer you catches while driving. If there are four fielders outside the circle, then the strategy is completely different from when you have five fielders outside the circle.
"For me, making my intent clear to the batsman before he stamps his authority is important. Playing with his mind is a way of attacking rather than setting attacking fields," Harbhajan elaborated.
Harbhajan has so far taken six wickets in four List A matches in the Vijay Hazare Trophy after 22 wickets in six first-class matches this season.
The feisty off-spinner has bowled well in the four matches so far, coming to bowl often in the Powerplays.
"For me, each and every game is an opportunity. In the last one year, I have not done badly in the domestic matches that I have played. My endeavour has been to work hard and get better at my game. After Vijay Hazare, there will be Mushtaq Ali Trophy followed by IPL. Each and every tournament is a platform to get back into India team," Harbhajan said.
Harbhajan was disappointed that he sustained a shoulder injury just after he had got 17 wickets from the first two Ranji Trophy games and had to remain out of action for nearly six weeks.
"It wasn't the best time to get injured. In fact there is no right time for an injury (laughs). I had worked a lot during my pre-season and was starting to get wickets which is a result of that hardwork. But then my shoulder gave away and I had to take leave for month and a half. Ideally, I would have liked to get close to 50 wickets in Ranji Trophy," Bhajji said.
"In fact, my comeback to competitive cricket was a good one as I nearly got a century (92) in the quarter-finals against Jammu and Kashmir. I didn't bowl much in the match (19.2 overs in all for two wickets) as my pacers did a splendid job on a greenish track (17 of 20 J&K wickets were taken by trio of Sandeep Sharma, MS Gony and VRV Singh)."
Harbhajan has been bowling a lot with fielding restrictions on in the one dayers and he is loving it.
"As a senior bowler and captain of the side, I need to lead from the front. I have to try and bowl in Powerplays as I have the confidence to restrict the batsmen. I have bowled 12 overs in two matches as I felt I had a better chance to keep the batsmen quiet in slog overs by mixing it up. I am happy with my economy rate (4.21 runs per over) in four games," he added.
The senior off-spinner also quashed rumours that he will be fighting Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.
"Yes, I was approached by a few senior leaders and asked whether I would be interested in fighting elections from Punjab. As of now, I have no interest in joining politics as I still have a lot of cricket left in me.
"Also if I join politics, I need to have time to understand as to what I am getting into. There's time for everything and it's the time for only focusing on my cricket career," he concluded.