<
>

Harbhajan gets his "English white" jersey

Shortly before his Ranji Trophy debut, Harbhajan Singh had given a hard time to some of Indian cricket's biggest names during a net session in Jalandhar Associated Press

Punjab v Services, Mohali, 1997-98

Even before I made my Ranji Trophy debut, there was some chatter that I was in contention for a place in the Indian side. My name was doing the rounds because I had played the Under-19 World Cup, and I was the only spinner in the country who was bowling the doosra at that time. Earlier in the season, when the Indian team was practising, I was asked to bowl in the nets to them.

Before that, there was a West Zone team that came to Jalandhar for the Deodhar Trophy; there was Sanjay Manjrekar, who was leading the team, Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. I bowled to them in the nets and got all of them out quite a few times. At that time, [Mumbai coach] Balwinder Singh Sandhu apparently wanted me to represent Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, but people in the Punjab Cricket Association said I had a promising career ahead and would play for Punjab. So I knew my turn would come any time, and wasn't really surprised by the call-up.

The Punjab team had Vikram Rathour, who captained in this game, Sherry pa [Navjot Singh Sidhu], who captained the side that season, Pankaj Dharmani and Bharati Vij. These were the big guns we used to hear of during our U-19 days, and here I was, playing alongside them. I knew Punjab already had an offspinner in the form of Ashish Kapoor. I had no idea at that time if the wicket we played on would allow for two spinners to be played, but I got to play and I was really happy.

The Punjab team was sponsored by a famous apparel brand at that time. Every player in the team used to wear the branded t-shirt - the jersey was nicely done and was proper "English white" in colour - and I used to long for it too. It was a great thrill to finally wear it, and I wouldn't take it off even while bowling in the nets in Jalandhar.

The one thing I was most scared of - and there wasn't much nervousness about my debut - was facing up to one of their bowlers, who had a reputation for being very quick; I think it was MV Rao. At the U-19 level, you don't face many quick bowlers, and you naturally assume that bowlers in the Ranji Trophy are much faster.

I was worried about being hit by Rao, and kept praying that he wouldn't bowl to me. It was one of my earliest experiences of wearing the helmet - given the hype around Rao's pace, I would have gladly worn two of those. As luck would have it, it was Rao who was bowling when I came out to bat. But, after I got bat on ball off the first delivery, I felt good and realised I had been unnecessarily scared. Now, I knew that he wasn't unplayable.

Soon, I began to treat it as just another game. Somewhere down the line, I realised that it had been harder bowling to some U-19 batsmen than against Services because they weren't a great team at that time. When I picked up my first wicket, Sherry pa said in his typical style: "Oye, Shabaash bacchu, Cha gaya beta" [well done, kid]. Sherry pa was my hero. There was a jolly environment in the team at that time, and we would constantly pull each other's legs. I was younger than most and used to hang out a lot with Harvinder Singh most of the time; he was another prankster.

I played only four or five first-class matches before my international debut. In that season, there was a game against Karnataka, which was quite crucial for Punjab. Nine of Karnataka's eleven players were internationals - people like Rahul Dravid, Sujith Somasundar, Venkatesh Prasad, Javagal Srinath and Anil [Kumble] bhai were playing. The selectors were there to see what the big fuss was about me. I picked up three wickets in the first innings and two in the second.

I bowled well in whatever opportunity I got in the game. I troubled Rahul Dravid quite a bit, and was more than happy that I was challenging a top batsman like him. With every game I played, I knew I was coming one step closer to my dream of playing for the country.

As told to Arun Venugopal