I need to start afresh - Harbhajan
On Friday afternoon, as soon as Essex finished a convincing victory against Kent in their Championship match, Harbhajan Singh dashed from Canterbury to the outskirts of London to pay obeisance at a Gurudwara. It was an important day.
August 1, 2011 was the last time Harbhajan had played for India. He had left the England tour mid-way due to a stomach injury. He was two matches away from becoming only the ninth Indian cricketer to play 100 Tests. But a combination of injuries, dip in form and the lack of faith from the selection panel left him stranded on 98 Tests. He missed the home series against West Indies, the away tour of Australia, the Asia Cup and recently the limited-overs series against Sri Lanka. In between he lead Mumbai Indians to their maiden Champions League Twenty20 title and replaced Sachin Tendulkar as the captain for the fifth season of the IPL. Yet deep down, Harbhajan was worried if he might ever make a come back.
So today, even before he stepped into the ground, when he received the message about his recall into the Indian squad for the World Twenty20, Harbhajan was caught unawares. Luckily he was distracted by the cricket and played a match-winning hand with three wickets. It was the first time Harbhajan had taken four wickets in a match after the tour of the Caribbean last year.
"It is special. It is good to be back in the team. It is another opportunity to do well. I have played for so many years but that has all gone. I need to start fresh. I am very excited to be part of the team," Harbhajan said, walking late evening on the streets of Chelmsford city to get his dinner. The news was still sinking in, but the sense of hurt and disappointment caused by the year-long hiatus had taken its toll somewhat even on a steely fighter like Harbhajan.
He admitted it was a "very hard and tough year" sitting out, and agreed with the view by his former captain Rahul Dravid, who had said that a comeback was tougher than making a debut. "Nobody would like to be outside the team but as Rahul [Dravid] mentioned it is difficult to make comebacks than playing first time for India. It is much more difficult for a guy like me who has played for 12 years, had a very successful career and then suddenly you are out of the team. Then you have to work even harder and you have to compete with yourself to do even better. Having already set some standards through your various performances you are competing with yourself. You have to step one further now. For that you have to work even more harder, remain even more focused and start again from the scratch."
There was indeed some desperation when everything he tried did not translate into good things on the field. "You work even harder but nothing clicked - I tried everything but either I was getting injured or I was not getting the rewards," Harbhajan said.
The lesson, Harbhajan pointed out, he learned during his time out was "nothing can be taken for granted." Philosophical, yet true. "Even your failure and your success cannot be taken for granted. When you are going through a good patch you tend to ignore certain things. It could be your sleeping habits, it could be waking up at 6 am and going for a jog, it could be a gym session. You think you know you have to do all things. But when you come out of the team, you get injured, you are not doing that well and then you realise these are the things I am missing," he said. So getting stronger, both mentally and physically, were the twin goals that would allow him to be in a good position once he was recalled.
But the injuries posed as the main stumbling blocks. "It took me about three months to recover from the stomach injury. Later I led Mumbai Indians to the title in the Champions League Twenty20 but suddenly I was hit by the shin injury," he said. The shin pain did not allow him to even run for five minutes at a stretch and kept him out for another three months. "My focus completely shifted towards these frequent injuries. I wondered why this was happening." He was desperate. He wanted to come back.
"I played Ranji Trophy games but did not get too many wickets. I lead Punjab well in the shorter formats. But that was not just enough," he said. He had just two wickets in his bag from the three Ranji matches that he played. Harbhajan was not entirely sure if he had lost his mojo. "I did not feel I had gone wrong drastically. That I had lost everything I had: the control on the ball, the way it spun. Those things were happening, but not the way I wanted it to be."
The fear of another injury had gripped him. But then he started speaking to successful people from all walks of life and their underlying message was to just enjoy his trade. "I just want to go and enjoy the game because I felt during the time out I had forgotten to enjoy the game. Even in the IPL I was under pressure which came out of my own expectations. I was feeling like: I need to lead the side well, I need to perform well to comeback into the side. So that probably affected my chances."
The plan to come to England had a meaning. He wanted to enjoy the game, which had gone missing. The IPL was the final leg of the Indian domestic season and Harbhajan had managed just six wickets in 17 matches without bowling his full quota of overs in as many as eight outings. He then decided to play for an English county and had offers from Essex and Somerset. He understood the challenge was bigger because the domestic batsmen in England are far more conservative in their strokeplay. Also the pitches do not turn much. But he knew he could make a difference. "I am enjoying over here and playing competitive cricket and looking much better than what I was both mentally and physically and bowling lot of overs whenever I get opportunity and the sun is out. I definitely want Essex to finish stronger."
It was a similar scenario in 2007 when Harbhajan had helped his former county Surrey get promoted that season. Back then the selectors had left out Harbhajan from the England tour. But his strong performances at Surrey had earned him a national berth a few months later for the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa, which India won. He remains equally confident this time, too: that Essex would move from Division Two to Division One and India could stake a strong claim to the World Twenty20 crown in Sri Lanka.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo