'If the critics think I could have taken four, I feel I could have taken six'
How big is getting 400 wickets for you?
Four hundred is a lot. When I was young, I remember Kapil Dev getting it, and it was quite a big thing. An Indian had taken it. I feel honoured and proud that God has given me a chance to reach 400 wickets. It's a big thing for me, I don't know about others.
Do you think you can end up with 600?
That's where I should be. If I don't reach there I will be disappointed. It will be my fault if I don't reach 600. It will depend on how badly I want to get there. Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan are way better bowlers than me, and I would like to get close to them. I have nothing to lose. I have everything to gain from here on. I want to win games on my own.
It seems sometimes that you are two different bowlers. When you are bowling well, you are so good. Then, on days you slip to the middle and leg line - quick, defensive. What do you have to say about that criticism?
If the criticism is that "One day he does well, the second day he doesn't, third he does well" then fine. But without any reason, just because I didn't take any wickets today, "chalo isko uda do [let's slam him]"… If I take a wicket - be it off a full-toss - then "well bowled". That's not fair.
Yes, with me there have been days when I bowl well [but] I don't take wickets. When I have bowled bad - as you say when I bowl leg and middle and take a wicket at backward short-leg - as a cricketer you know, it isn't satisfying. I don't mind criticism if it's fair - that I didn't bowl a good line.
I do try a lot of things. I want to bowl outside off, bowl from close to the stumps, from round the stumps. I keep changing my seam position, [try] small things - I don't know whether you guys are able to pick it from there. There are lots of times these small things work. The revolutions on the ball are different, the amount of turn is different. My effort is to bowl to the best of my potential. I am human after all. I will bowl well, I will bowl badly. I must have done something good or I couldn't have lasted 13 years. I am making sure my mistakes reduce.
What about the leg-stump line criticism?
I am disappointed with myself when I do that. For example, in the Jamaica Test, I think I could have taken at least 10 wickets. I am very honest about it. I didn't bowl as well I could have done there. There was nothing much to do but just hit the spot on that wicket. But for two days I just couldn't land the ball where I wanted. I tried my best, but it didn't happen. I felt disappointed and hurt.
In Indian conditions the leg-and-middle line seems to make sense sometimes. You have a backward short-leg in place, and there is that bounce and turn…
Let me tell you something. Even if you have a backward short-leg, it doesn't mean that your line should change. If the spin can come from outside off, you want to make the batsman play to mid-off or covers, and not to midwicket or mid-on.
What happens on those days when we see you drift down leg?
Sometimes I just get over-excited. I see the pitch and I think, "I have to get this wicket." When I am just looking to bowl, I am calm and composed, and most of the time I get it right. The ball lands where I want it to. When I see a pitch like Jamaica, I get excited. So the focus shifts from basic things. I start thinking [of doing] magic stuff. I will pitch it here and get it to do this. I will bowl this ball. And in trying to do all that you end up trying so hard, you lose it.
So you bowl a few overs like that. Can't you then change?
By then sometimes it gets too late. You are bowling like that and the batsman starts getting used to you, the pitch, the bounce. The impact that you have early is different from when he is playing the 30th or 35th ball. Of course you try to change, and you do change, but I am saying sometimes the effectiveness gets lost because of that initial bad spell.
When you have had two bad spells, does the pressure get to you and affect your future spells?
Of course. I put myself under pressure. Every bowler - if you talk to Shane Warne - wants to bowl a magic ball and get people out. Try to make the guy play a flick and catch him at slip. You start thinking: the pitch has so much, so why is nothing happening for me? You look to bowl fast, cross-seam, and not give him time. Sometimes that results in a couple of boundaries. That builds up pressure on you. I think what I have to do is make sure I keep things simple. When I have done that, things have worked for me.
What does "keeping things simple" mean to you? What's your ideal line and pace?
I don't rely on pace. See, every bowler is different. Lots of people say I bowl very fast and [Erapalli] Prasanna used to bowl slow. Obviously he was a great bowler in his era, but my bowling is different. My pace is different. I know my strength.
It all depends on the wicket. You can't have a set format. I will give you an example. In South Africa - in the first Test in Centurion - they normally say an offspinner should make the batsman cover-drive. I tried it whole day: I tried to make them drive through the covers and kept getting hit through there for fours. And many times I could see Jacques Kallis' two stumps because he was shuffling towards off to sweep me. He got 200. [Hashim] Amla also kept cover-driving me. Later I was thinking that the balls were good. It's not as if I was cut or pulled. Yet they were driving and sweeping me easily. I spoke to Ravi Shastri and he said, "Your first-day bowling will have to depend on the pitches. In India, or in Centurion, wherever there is no turn but good bounce, a lot of these good players will try to play on the up, with the bounce, and against the turn." So I was getting hit.
In the next game I changed my line. I bowled very straight. I made them play every ball. If he misses the sweep I will get him lbw. So I didn't bowl outside off. If he plays across, there's a chance of a slip catch or a bat-pad catch.
Shastri told me that on days and pitches like that you don't want the batsman to drive to cover. You want him to play to mid-off or towards you. You can push mid-off wider and make him drive between you and the mid-off on a first-day wicket. If it's spinning then you, of course, try to bowl wider outside off. I tried that and it worked. Amla got out trying to sweep in Durban and in Cape Town. On a given day, on given conditions, you have to change your line and length according to the batsman. If Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are batting together, the ball that is good for Dravid is not good for Laxman. You have to keep thinking. Any time you are bowling you are trying to make sure the ball is hitting the stumps. I try to do that. Most days it happens. Some days it doesn't. Wickets have a way of coming in a bunch for me. Four hundred wickets is not a fluke. Utne bhi gaye ghuzre hote toh ghar pey baithe rehte [If I was so ordinary, I would be sitting at home].
In the New Zealand tour in 2009, you seemed to be at your best. The turn, the drift, the bounce...
I think I bowled my best there. We were playing three seamers and one spinner. Your role demands that your seamers remain fresh and you bowl a tight line. Don't try and do lots of different things. Make sure things are under control.
There wasn't much in the pitch, and I bowled well. On that tour I was consistently landing the ball in the spot. I was just doing normal things. There is bounce in overseas wickets. I bowled the best because I was calm and I knew my role.
I think I am a strike bowler - even in New Zealand. I want to take wickets and not put pressure on Zaheer [Khan]. My job is to take wickets, but at the same time I was very calm and composed and aware of my role in New Zealand. I was in good rhythm.
I had played a lot of Test cricket before that series. Here I have come on the back of lots of ODIs and Twenty20s. Your body takes time to adjust from one format to the other. Especially six months of one-day cricket, you can take time to adjust. This is not an excuse, but it does take time to bowl slower in the air and make the batsmen play in a different channel.
In ODIs sometimes you want him to play with the turn. In Tests you want him to play against the turn. The channels are different. It takes time.
You say you did well because you were calm. But sometimes the perception is that if you put Harbhajan in a fight, you get the best out of him. You are aggressive, emotional, and things start to happen.
Yeah, people say that, and it has worked for me. When I am in a contest, it gets the best out of me. I respond well to challenges. I do get pumped up. But in New Zealand there was nothing like that. They are very quiet out there. So which is the best mood I should be in? I think the calm, composed mood I was in in New Zealand is the best. I was enjoying the company of my team-mates. It's not that I am not now, but when you are playing good, you enjoy everything. But obviously when you put me in a ring for a fight, I am for it. You will see a different Harbhajan that day, and I hope that doesn't change. But, yes, I want to be calm and composed going forward.
How much can you plan in these days of computer footage and studying the opposition? How much do you think on your feet?
I am not a great fan of computers. I do watch videos and analyse which batsman is playing how. Batsmen can play different shots on different days. A batsman may not play cover drives well, but if he connects with two such shots, he starts playing the drive well on that day. I go in with a plan that I should get my rhythm first, and not go for the kill straightaway. I have to bring in that zone. Bowl four overs to get into the groove. I need to set up my pace, see how the track is playing, and then after five overs, after I am settled, I decide this is the field to set, this is the line to bowl.
A lot of people said [Shivnarine] Chanderpaul has been getting out to offspinners in his last six innings. But it's not that he will get out to an offie in the next six too. I go with an open mind. I am there to bowl well.
Then you keep adapting within the game. This batsman is looking to sweep, this guy is coming forward, this guy is looking to play to the on side. I have learnt this from Anil bhai. I have not seen him come and straightaway say he needs a short leg. Same with Warne. He told me, "I see if I can keep a man in the deep for, say, someone like Sehwag, then I keep one right away. I drop my midwicket or mid-off back. Then if I bowl four good overs, I start getting the field in." I have learnt from these guys and also from my own experience.
You use a lot of over-spin and get bounce. Many offspinners use side spin more.
It has been natural with me. I always had the bounce; it was the biggest thing I had. I get a lot of bat-and-pad gap. I try to stick to that. The rest are add-ons. My action is completely natural. This is the way I bowled from the first day. My muscles have trained that way. I don't get tired through my action.
In the press conference the other day, you said you had more downs than ups. Do you really think that?
I wasn't talking about wickets and such. I was talking more about life. In cricket too I have been dropped, not taken wickets, not performed over a couple of months, in a few series… Obviously those are low phases, but I was talking more about my life. When I was so young my action came into doubt. I had to go abroad and clear it. Those days I didn't even speak proper English. I had to go to England. I had no clue what to do. I couldn't talk at all with anyone. That was a low phase. Then when I was thrown out of the National Cricket Academy, that was a down phase. Then my father died, which was my lowest phase. Then that Sreesanth incident. I thought my cricket will be over after that, because just then the whole Australia [Symonds] thing had happened.
Yes, as a cricketer I have risen a lot. I didn't think I will reach here. And I have the time to rise further.
Are you an emotional person?
I am very emotional. It took me many years to recover from the death of my father. Even when I was playing cricket, I wasn't happy. I would just sit and cry. I was very young. He was too young; he shouldn't have gone. Cricket is all right. We all play sport. Good and bad days come. You feel bad when you are not doing well, but you can always come back. But when things go bad in life, you feel… that Sreesanth incident, I should not have done what I did.
Did you have to sit and think about how you were going to handle sharing a dressing room with Andrew Symonds?
We didn't talk about it at all. That was finished in Sydney, both for him and for me. And he actually mentioned it, saying it was over right there in Sydney and not to worry about what people were writing or saying on TV. For me it was over then and there.
For those who like you, you are like a loveable rascal. For those who don't, it's arrogance and bad character. How do you handle that?
I don't think many people know me. I come across as "akhadu" [arrogant], but when they talk to me, they tell me I am not like how they thought I would be. Even lots of journalists think I am arrogant, but people close to me know the real me. I am a jolly person.
It's important what people close to me think. They know what I am. I don't live for the whole world. I live for the people who are close to me. I can't please everyone. I don't wish bad for anyone. My conscience is clear.
You used to react a lot earlier on. You seem to be more relaxed these days.
I used to react a lot before [laughs]. If someone said something [to me] I'd react. [Now I understand] they have their opinion and they are doing their job. I am learning to handle it better. In our profession there is lot of scrutiny. It's not just a sport in India. It's way bigger than that. Every day we have an exam. It's big pressure, not just for me but for everyone.
A guy like him [pointing at Virat Kohli, who was briefly in the room during the interview] is just 21-22, but the pressure he is going through by not scoring in a few innings is huge. The next time he goes to bat, in the back of his mind there will be the things people said. He will be thinking, "They are saying, Virat Kohli is not a Test player." Slowly we all learn to adjust. Isn't there a song, "Kuch toh log kehenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna" ["People will criticise, that's what they do"]?
When people close to me get annoyed with me, it affects me. It still does. I say something and I regret it. I am very emotional. I play hard in cricket, but when it gets to my life and friends it affects me. I am a human being. I have feelings.
It's like your critics expect greatness from you and they're disappointed that you are letting them down.
Yeah. It's nice for them to think that way. I also expect big things from me. I go out and give it my best shot. When I come back to my room, I have to look at the mirror and be honest with myself. Everyone wants to do better. Hopefully when I retire, those people will say I justified my talent. That I was not doing as much as I could have done in that period of time but I went on to make the most of my talent. Those sorts of people actually inspire you to do well.
How do you separate your expectations from what others expect of you?
When you are doing it for yourself, you are doing it for everyone. You do well for your country. I don't think expectations burden me when I am on the field. I just try to focus on what I am doing. If I start thinking of all those things, I can't do what I should do at that particular time. At the end of the day you go out and try your best. That's what I have been doing for the last 13 years. If you ask Sachin Tendulkar, he will tell you the same thing: you can only do your best.
What was the impact of Kumble's retirement on you? How long did it take for you to adjust to his absence?
I want to clear one thing. After that 2001 series against Australia, I never thought I want to be the second spinner in the team. I never felt I was the fourth bowler and that it my role was to get two wickets and go. I wanted to win games. I wanted to take five wickets. When Anil bhai was there, he was a very competitive cricketer. He wanted to take wickets. I also wanted to take wickets. It's not competition, per se. He is a bigger bowler. He is a legend. But I wanted to do well too. When he left there was added responsibility on me. There is no bowler like Kumble at the other end. These guys are good but they will take time to get a feel of international cricket. So I took more responsibility. My role has become bigger. I have to ensure the young guys don't feel pressure. I have to bowl the crucial overs. Earlier the responsibility was shared between Kumble and me. Now it's my responsibility as the senior bowler to take the burden and most of the pressure.
Do you doubt yourself?
I don't doubt myself. People do. They ask if I am good enough. I know I am good enough, and that's why I have taken 400 wickets. Lots of people talk about other greats, but very few people have taken 400 Test wickets. It's not a small thing. I am a very confident guy, and not just about cricket. I do what I feel is right. It works for me. I never think my bowling deteriorated. If you doubt yourself, sit at home and watch cricket on TV.
What are the things you are developing in your bowling?
I am working on my angles: to bowl closer to the stumps, bowl wider. A lot of these guys are bowling new and different balls. When [Ajantha] Mendis came, it was different, but then batsmen adjusted to him. I don't want to complicate myself.
Warne used to bowl two balls - legbreaks and the flipper. And he used to vary so much within those, with his angles, pace and trajectory. His googly wasn't great. Anil bhai always was about tight lines. Murali was offspin and doosra.
If you master your stock deliveries and the variations that you want, then that's the best. It's nice to bowl different kinds of balls, but you have to make sure you don't forget what you know. Bowling different kinds of balls is not my strength. And to practise them you need to allot special time. You can't try them in a match. If we have 600 runs on board, then I can try sliders, back-spinners. I have tried them, in fact. They mostly went for boundaries!
You have not been bowling doosras much these days; you are using topspinners more. Why?
I bowl doosras too, but the batsmen have started to read it better. If you overuse it, it can get ineffective. You set up the batsman with offbreaks and then try to slip one in. I will increase it a bit more now that you have brought it to my attention.
You also come round the stumps more often these days.
Earlier it used to be considered negative bowling. Now they get you more lbws. That round-the-stumps angle is very good, especially when the ball is turning. You just to have to spin it a bit.
When bowling over the wicket, you have to pitch it wider, because you have to turn it within the line of stumps and not down leg. From round the wicket, the batsman has to play across his body, and that line gets really dangerous. Then I can slip in a topspinner so it can go off the edge to silly point or slip. I have really worked hard on that angle.
You use the scrambled seam a lot.
Yeah. If it lands on the shiny side, it skids on faster. If it lands on the rough, it spins more. As a bowler, when you don't know where it's going to land, how can the batsman know? This is with respect to the scrambled seam. With a normal grip, with the seam pointing across, you know the ball is going to land only partly on seam. When you are bowling with a scrambled seam you don't know where it will land. If it lands on the seam it kicks up. If it lands on the shiny side, it skids. I have started to use it a lot more.
When I bowl normal offspin my seam is clear and easy to pick. And when I bowl my doosras the seam is scrambled, and so it became easier to pick. So I started to bowl offbreaks with the scrambled seam. Some batsmen just see the revolutions of the ball. Those who pick it from the hand play it better. With the cross seam it's not clear if it will be an offbreak or go straight.
How much do you analyse your bowling?
I am my worst critic. That's why it doesn't matter to me what other people think. They feel I am arrogant, but it's just that I am my harshest critic. If they think I could have taken four wickets, I feel I could have taken six. I still can't get over that Jamaica Test. I should have taken 10 on that track. How did I mess that up? The amount critics blast me is nothing compared to how much I blast myself once back in the room. But I don't carry it to the next day. I don't want to repeat my mistake. I want to start the day fresh.
Who are the cricketers you speak to? So many former players criticise you. Who do you turn to?
Sunny bhai [Gavaskar], Kapil paaji [Dev], Anil bhai, of course. Murali, who is a gem of a person. He always tells me what I should be doing. Warne is there to help you. He will talk to you. Saqlain Mushtaq is a very dear friend. Mushy bhai [Mushtaq Ahmed] and Wasim bhai [Akram].
Do you feel you are now the best spinner in the world?
I don't know. [Graeme] Swann is doing a fantastic job for England. [Daniel] Vettori is doing it for his team. Saeed Ajmal is a brilliant brilliant bowler too
How would you describe your game over the last six months?
I think I have bowled well, but I haven't got the results to show for it. I haven't got a big number of wickets. There were a few catches which went down. But that's part of the game. Some days great catches will be taken off your bowling and certain days simple chances will be dropped. The South African series was very satisfying for me. I was really happy I bowled well in South Africa. I think I should have taken more wickets in West Indies. I think I have bowled well here, except for the first Test. In patches I think I bowled okay in Jamaica too, but not up to my best.
You look like a proper batsman these days.
It's very important to think like a batsman when you are out there. When I bowl, no one gifts me their wickets. Then why play stupid shots, get out, come back into the dressing room and think, "I should have spent more time in there"? When you are in the middle, make the most of it. Don't throw your wicket away. If you get a good delivery then it's fine. I am trying to reduce my mistakes in the middle. I have scored runs only when I haven't gone out and started playing my strokes straight away.
Previously I used to go and swing my bat, hit a few boundaries and the dressing room would applaud wildly. But then I'd get out for 20. I still play my shots, but I am more judicious in my approach. Hitting sixes is not too difficult. It's taking singles that is tough. I think in that sense, the century against New Zealand really helped me a lot. Until you do something for the first time, you don't know what it is worth.
How would you describe yourself: an emotional person, a fighter or a lovable rascal?
I come from a land which has produced a lot of warriors. I am a warrior. I will put myself against anyone and I will give my best for all my friends, my team-mates, my country and myself. These guys come first, and for them I am ready to do anything. I am emotional and I am aggressive and at the same time. I am a wise thinker, though not many people think I am one [laughs].
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo