'I can't help being insecure'
Starting in Sri Lanka last year, the way you have played, do you think that's the best you can get?
If someone had told me in Sri Lanka that this is what I would achieve in the next year, in all three forms of the game, I would have taken it hands down.
Do you remember the days spent out of the team?
More than the time I have spent with the team, I remember the time out of it. There were sleepless nights. There were times when nothing went my way. I do remember all of that. That's what keeps me on my toes. That's what helps me concentrate on each and every game.
Did you feel angry or frustrated?
At one point, when I didn't make the 2007 World Cup squad, I was very, very frustrated. Then I became very hard on myself. Whenever I used to go to the nets, or when I trained in the gym, I was very hard on myself. I couldn't sleep, I used to think a lot. Very, very desperate to make a comeback.
What would you do when you got angry during those days?
One good thing that I always had is, these angry periods make me mentally tougher. They make me work harder, rather than just sit down and think, "Oh, I am not going to make a comeback, oh, things are not going to happen for me."
When something inside you says, "I don't want to go to the gym today," what do you do?
When I got dropped for the World Cup, there were times I didn't want to play anymore. I didn't want to practise. I couldn't motivate myself. Then I said, "Look what are the options?" Cricket is the only option. Whether I play happily or sadly, it's still all I have. There are not a lot of things I am good at. Then you motivate yourself again. If you have to do this, may as well do it happily.
What did you do when you were told you were not going to the World Cup?
That was the worst night. I got dropped during the West Indies series in Goa. Then the next series they were playing was more or less a decided team for the World Cup. After that, when the team went to West Indies, I was playing Deodhar Trophy. That was one of the few times I couldn't concentrate because I was really frustrated, and I was really emotionally down because I wanted to play the World Cup, which I haven't done yet.
Once you are dropped, you go back to playing Ranji again. What do you feel?
Ask any batsman what gives him maximum satisfaction. It's scoring runs, whether it's Ranji Trophy or any form of the game. When you get back to your room, knowing that you have scored a hundred, it gives you satisfaction. Whenever I would go back to Ranji Trophy, my hunger for runs had always increased.
Did you ever think your chance had come and gone?
Oh, I did. I still remember when I was making my comeback after the World Cup, when I went to Bangladesh. I felt that if I didn't perform on that tour, people would say, "He has got enough opportunities and he has not performed, let's look beyond him." Because obviously no one remembers how many comebacks I had made, and how many matches I played after making comebacks. But I managed to score a hundred there.
Was that the innings?
No. After that hundred I still had some lows. I didn't score runs in Ireland against South Africa, and I didn't start off well against England in England.
You once said "I was too hard on myself. I wasn't too relaxed and it used to tie me up in knots." I believe Gary Kirsten helped you with the insecurity you felt over being dropped. What exactly did he do?
Gary told me how much quality I brought to the side. "You are the one who can anchor the innings, and at the same time you can attack." When you get to know this from a person who has played 100 Tests and who is the coach, then you tell yourself, "Look, you are equally important." That has made me comfortable. Earlier no one ever told me what importance I brought to the side. I always used to feel, what I am doing in this side anyone else can do. Now I realise I have my own role.
One such innings was the World Twenty20 final. We had such a great side but I got the most runs in the tournament. South Africa, the first time I was playing there. Also, when we went to Sri Lanka and I scored 300 runs, against Murali and Mendis. That's when I realised I was equally important.
You need to feel loved and told you are important?
Everyone does. You need to have that good atmosphere, and that's what has been happening over the last one-and-a-half years. That's why the team has been doing well, because the atmosphere in the dressing room and around us has been fantastic. Everyone has his own importance.
Does that mean you were not comfortable during your earlier stints with the team?
Then I used to feel that there is a huge gap between me and other players. Initially I used to try and copy them. Maybe getting dropped teaches you more things than when you are doing well. One thing I realised was that everyone is different. You can't compare two human beings.
Are you an introvert?
Depends on who I am with. Lots of people think I am an introvert. But when I am comfortable with people, I am the only one who talks. If you ask Viru [Virender Sehwag], Munna [Munaf Patel], Ishant [Sharma], Amit [Mishra], they will tell you, when we are together, I am the only guy talking. You ask others, they say, he doesn't talk. I need to be comfortable with people.
And so goes your reputation: that you play well when you are in your comfort zone. Take you slightly out, say put you with a team of players you are not friendly with, it gets difficult. Is that true?
That's true for any cricketer. They need to be in that comfort zone. If you ask any batsman, they want to be in the right frame of mind. How relaxed they are shows in their performance. In the last year and a half, I have been in that comfort zone whenever I have played for India.
How true is this angry-young-man image that you have?
I used to be very angry. It's not the anger but passion that comes out when I am playing. I really want to do well. I used to be very short-tempered, very impatient, earlier. I guess I am still very impatient. If I have decided to do something, I want to do it now. If I ask someone else to do something, I want that person to do it at that point of time. That's the way I have always been. If I want to go to the gym right now, I want to go right now. I don't want to wait.
Do you let what people say affect you? Is it difficult to not let that bother you?
That was one big mistake I made. Maybe that's why I used to be under pressure to perform each and every time. Because I used to bother about what people were saying.
On the field you are such a competitive, positive, aggressive player. How come you let all these negatives come into your system?
In a country like India, when you know there is so much competition, and the kind of experiences I have had in the past, it has always made me insecure. Because I didn't get the India cap that easily. When I made my Test debut I had already scored 5000 runs in domestic cricket. It wasn't that I just scored one or two hundreds and got my Test call. I worked very hard. So I was always so hard on myself, saying that this is the only opportunity I have. If I don't score runs, I don't want to go to the domestic circuit again and start off from zero. All those 5000 runs would go to waste.
You must have made technical changes too?
There was a time when I was a big lbw candidate. I have worked hard on it with Mr Parthasarathi Sharma. He helped me a lot in this thing, when my head used to fall. There was one exercise I used to do without holding the bat. I used to take my head towards the ball. Someone used to throw the ball from a shorter distance and I used to just play with my pads so that my head didn't fall but went in the same direction where the ball is coming from. So the head stays still. Once your head falls, the front leg starts going across. This and a couple other exercises and I stopped shuffling.
How did you start walking down the wicket towards fast bowlers?
Before we went to Sri Lanka, when they came here, Chaminda Vaas had got me lbw three or four times. So I knew I had to tackle him. He knew my weaknesses well, he had put me through my worst Test series. So one way to tackle it was walk down the crease. It came instinctively, to get rid of that lbw thing. So that I am far more in front of the crease, so that I am covering the swing, and sometimes even outside the line of off. It worked, so I thought why not continue with it.
There was a time when you were suspect outside off; now it has become your strength.
What happens is, a lot has to again do with my security in this side. Technique can take you till one level, international cricket is all about how mentally strong and how mentally relaxed you are. Sometimes your instincts take over and you are not in control of your body and your mind. Sometimes you are desperate to score runs, you are so desperate to get out of that zone that you tend to chase the ball. When you are mentally relaxed, when you feel you belong, you try and play the ball late and closer to the body. Everything has to do with your mindset.
Then came the phase of the fifties. Did you ever think you were wasting your best years by not getting centuries?
In Sri Lanka I scored three fifties. Against Australia in Mohali I remember I got out for 67, and when I was walking back there was talk behind my back that I was good only for fifties. There was talk in the media also that I was not able to get hundreds. It was always at the back of my mind. For any cricketer this can become a mental block. You start feeling there is something wrong with the concentration.
What was the immediate feeling at getting that hundred in the second innings? Relief?
Absolutely. I was very relieved. Because I wanted to prove to myself I could get a hundred. Once I did that, I got a double in the next innings.
You were on 67 in Delhi when you elbowed Shane Watson. Was it a big moment for you as a batsman that your concentration didn't suffer and you went on to get a double?
Whenever the situation becomes tough, whenever I get into an argument with someone, I become tougher, more determined. I concentrate harder. Then I don't want to lose my wicket. For me, sometimes during Test cricket I start feeling a bit loose, too relaxed. Your concentration is not at the highest level. Sometimes you want to get into an argument with a bowler so that you can concentrate harder and get grittier.
Do you look back at Watson incident and say, "Maybe I went too far"?
Absolutely. I should have behaved more maturely because of the kind of good form I was in. If India had lost the Nagpur Test, I would have taken all the blame. Because the kind of form I was in, I should have played the fourth Test. And because when you are in good nick, you want to take the team through. Not just do your bit and relax. At no point should anybody be allowed to let his team down.
Now that you've grown older, more successful and mature, can you draw a line and say, "This is being hard on myself, and this is being too hard"?
I try and do that. But it takes a lot of effort. Because the way you have been brought up, the way you have played your cricket, it doesn't change in one or two years. It has to be a very conscious effort. It takes a very, very hard effort to change it.
What is it about your upbringing that makes you this way?
In the Under-14 days I was the highest run-getter, and I didn't go to the World Cup. I was the highest run-getter in Under-19 and I still didn't make it to the Under-19 World Cup. Ranji Trophy, I got an 83 in the second match I played and I got dropped again. The insecurities started from there. That was the age when a person would want to enjoy his cricket, but that was not the case with me. I always thought that if I didn't perform well I would not get the next game. Be it Under-14, Under-16, Under-19, Ranji Trophy. That's the way I have been brought up. It has got into my system.
You have opened with Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ganguly. How is it different with them?
Sehwag is my favourite player. He is the best, most dangerous. Opening with him is completely different, because the kind of understanding and comfort I have with him is tremendous. Whenever I go onto the field and I have Sehwag at the other end, it gives me a lot of confidence. No doubts about that. He has been one of my very good friends.
Can he sense when you are down?
There were times, when I was making my comeback, that I just walked up to him and said that I was very nervous. He always says something that lifts you. I am not shy of walking up to him and saying, "I am nervous." I remember in the first innings in Napier that I wasn't batting well at all. I was struggling against James Franklin. He [Sehwag] walked up to me and told me, do this and things might work. He also realises sometimes that I am struggling mentally, or struggling against a certain bowler. And I don't mind walking up to him and asking him to take strike against a certain bowler.
What did he tell you in Sri Lanka?
He said, just concentrate. It's just a matter of couple of minutes. Try and play within yourself. One thing he told me in New Zealand when I was struggling: try and think about God, try and take your mind off for a bit.
First of all we are very relaxed. We try and sing songs, we try and crack jokes. Because as you know, opening is the most difficult part. When you are playing the new ball, you have to try to get each other relaxed. Share light moments, talk something out of cricket. Those are things we have done. Most of the times we end up singing the same song.
There was a time when you took his place. Did your friendship change at all? I mean, before, you used to be out and he in, now it was the other way round.
My friendship is not because of only cricket - it's far beyond it. If I am outside the team and he is in, I will always wish he keeps scoring runs and helps India win. Friendship is not just about playing together, it goes beyond.
You spoke about Napier. Was that the finest you have played?
That's the best I have played because of my concentration, because I had to play out of my skin. Being an impatient guy, even off the field, I would always look to score runs and score them quickly. Sometimes I panic if runs are not coming. So I had to play out of my skin, out of my comfort zone, it was a big achievement for me.
You had Viru calling you the best opener since Gavaskar, you had Sachin, Laxman, Rahul, all praising you generously after that innings. Still insecure?
Yes they are, it's very difficult to get that out of my system. Now I have added my own expectation because I have done reasonably well in the last one and a half years. Two years ago, if I got one fifty in a three-match series I would be happy, but now it's very difficult sometimes.
Is it possible to not be hard on yourself?
I would love to go easy, because it exhausts you. You stop enjoying. You don't play your natural game. You are only looking to score at any cost. But that's the way I have been brought up. Can't help it.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo