It was a familiar sight at Chandigarh’s Sector-16 stadium in the mid-90s. A gawky turbaned teenager, with his packed bag kept on the stadium’s wall, waiting to take an autorickshaw to the main bus stand.Many young trainees at the Pace Academy knew the boy and his routine —Harbhajan Singh once again trying to slip away from the academy to his home in Jalandhar.
If no one had helped Harbhajan overcome his homesickness during the formative phase of his cricket career, who knows what direction his career would have taken. He is now a globetrotting star, but as a young boy learning his craft, the off-spinner had a tough time staying away from his doting family.
A sensitive boy, it was difficult for the 14-year-old Harbhajan to stay at the residential academy, a joint venture of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Sports Authority of India. Although called the Pace Academy, it also trained spinners.
Reputed cricket coach Desh Prem Azad, then the academy director, recalls his first meeting with him. “I was sitting in my office in the stadium when I saw this shy, small boy. He was admitted in the academy but he was very homesick. On the field, however, he was very dedicated.”
Coaches at the Sector 16 stadium vividly remember those days. “Many times, I found him sitting on the wall. He would say, ‘Mein chhod ke jaa raha hoon, dil nahin lag raha hai. (I am leaving the academy. My heart is not in it),” recalls Harish Sharma, a coach at the Sector 16 centre.
“Those days one had to wait as there were fewer autorickshaws. That allowed us the time to convince and cajole him into staying back,” Sharma says.
“He was with the Pace Academy but often we would have combined nets as they had very few trainees. And since I was young, he felt comfortable with me. He was an emotional kid, he would easily get upset if the coaches spoke to him sternly.
“Sometimes he would refuse to return from home after short breaks. We would then have to call his neighbours, send a message to get him on the phone, then talk him into returning.
“He was straightforward, but ziddi (adamant), like he is now. He would react to any comment very fast. But the talent was unmistakable. He had the rare ability to extract bounce, and was difficult to play in the nets,” says Sharma, a former Himachal Ranji batsman-keeper.
Thanks to the patience of his coaches, Harbhajan stayed on and emerged the most famous product of the scheme. His fellow trainees included former ODI paceman T Kumaran.
Harbhajan was the favourite net bowler with the visiting West Indies team in 1994-95.
“Since spin was India’s forte, the West Indies batsmen wanted to get some practice before the series began. Harbhajan started beating them every other ball. He was in huge demand and used to bowl to them for long hours,” Azad said.
The academy closed in 1997 and he was back with his Jalandhar-based coach, Davinder Arora. It didn’t take too long for him to earn his India cap.
His friends and coaches in Jalandhar recall Harbhajan’s stunning progress which saw him play for India as a teenager, making his Test and One-day debut in 1998.
The only son of a small-time businessman, Sardev Singh, Harbhajan first showed interest in cricket in 1992 and his cousin Kartar Singh, a badminton coach, took him to coach Charanjit Singh Bhullar. Until then, his only brush with cricket had been playing with cousins on their terrace.
“He used to play badminton with me and after he spoke about playing cricket I took him to Bhullar. The feedback wasn’t encouraging. I was told thoda bahut khel leta hai, thodi batting aati hai (He plays a bit, and can bat a bit). I pulled him out from there,” Kartar says.
Harbahajan also tried his hand in judo but was not happy.
“A few months later, he again wanted to play cricket, and I took him to Arora,” Kartar recalls. “This time the feedback was encouraging. Arora and his coach Harold Ghosh told me that this boy had a natural loop, Kartar said.
Arora remembers his first meeting with Bhajji. “He was frail, but hardworking and always keen to learn.”
Arora put Bhajji through a rigorous practice regimen.
“He was very down to earth. I used to call him for practice at the local Burton Park Stadium at 5:30 am. By noon, he was again back for three hours of bowling.
After that, he used to bowl at the nets in the evening,” he says.
Arora remembers how the teenager was so motivated he kept bowling well after sunset."I remember him bowling in the dark trying to get things right, in my scooter lights."
Harbhajan’s biggest strength is his determination, Sharma says. Before last year’s Mohali Test against Australia, Harbhajan was struggling with a shin injury. He was in a lot of pain. There was doubt whether he would play. However, with the Test at Mohali, Harbhajan could train at his favourite Sector-16 Stadium.
“He came here to train for three-four days before the Test. His rhythm was not good. One could sense he was not in the mood. He then bowled a few deliveries at the centre wicket and we could see him gradually settle down. We knew he was back; we said ab yeh ek tang pe bhi ball kar dega (He will bowl even on one leg).
Arora recalls how Harbhajan, in an U-15 match, ran through the Amritsar side. “As I was inspecting the pitch, I noticed a small ant-hill on the offside at the good length spot. I showed him the spot, all but one square centimetre and asked him to bowl on it as the pitch was soft there. He took eight wickets in the first innings and seven in the second. Even at that age he had control.”
Next year, during a Deodhar Trophy match, he was asked to bowl at the nets to the likes of Vinod Kambli and Sachin Tendulkar.
“He was bowling well and managed to beat both Kambli and Tendulkar a few times. Tendulkar told him he could get a call to the national team soon.”