Twenty20 cricket was supposed to spell doom for spinners. But in the IPL, for example, you were one of the people who started the trend of opening the bowling with spinners, and now everyone seems to be doing it. What’s the deal?
I don’t know. As far as I am concerned, any chance that came my way had to be taken if I had to reach anywhere in life. I took it with both hands. I took it head-on. I was like someone that was very hungry and prepared to hunt on an island. I had a lot of courage and faith in myself. One of the things about me is that if I had something to do, I would do it. I was left out of the Chennai Super Kings team in the third edition of the IPL and I was sitting at home and was making all sorts of promises to friends and parents; I am very happy that two to three years down the line, I am sitting and talking about it now. If it had gone the other way … I wouldn’t have let it go the other way of course. I came back into the squad and actually replaced (Muttiah) Muralitharan because of the combination and whatnot. It was a chance that came my way, and I took it with both hands.
A lot of faith in your ability, sure … but also the faith of your captain, isn’t it?
I would say so, but if I didn’t have faith in myself, I don’t think anybody else would have. He (MS Dhoni) certainly had faith in me. I don’t know what told him to do it, but he did. And I am very happy that I repaid his faith. But having said that, I am happy to have repaid my own faith. Otherwise it would have been a waste of time.
Once upon a time, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Mushtaq Ahmed were reviving the art of leg-spin bowling. Do you think that some of you are now reviving off-spin in a way – though with all the variations, it’s not just off-spin anymore?
You could say so. With Saeed Ajmal, Graeme Swann and me, and even Nathan Lyon, going around, yes, you’re right. If you look at the four of us, three of us are quite conventional. We don’t really bowl the doosra, which is always under the spotlight because of the action. I am very happy to call myself one of the cleanest bowlers with my high-arm action. It’s the same with Swann and Lyon. Swann and Ajmal have certainly stepped up and shown youngsters like me a way forward. As far as the revival of off-spin is concerned, I am very glad. It’s the easiest art actually, that anyone who turns up on the streets can claim to know. But at the same time, it’s the toughest art to execute and be successful at, because it’s not masked in too many ways. A wrist spinner can use various ways to mask the delivery and use his whole hand to get his repertoire on show. For an off-spinner, it’s much tougher.
Which is why all these new variations come in, I suppose?
The variations are just a part of the evolution of a spinner. I have always maintained that if you want to become a world-class bowler or even a good bowler who wants to trouble batsmen, you need to evolve. These variations are just a part of that. Ten years down the road, we may come across so many deliveries that none of us would have ever seen. But they have always existed, starting from tennis-ball cricket or soft-ball cricket. It’s all innovation. Somebody gets a spark and thinks and executes it.
When you talk of evolving, which stage of that evolution are you at now, having played around a year of Test cricket?
I’ve gone through a really, really good phase as a bowler and I am constantly looking to evolve. I have had my tough times as well, which is very good. Especially going down to Australia; it’s probably the toughest tour you can ask for in a spinner’s life. I would say I came out of the tough phase pretty decently. Maybe the next time I go there I will be a lot more successful and have a telling effect on the outcome of the series. Everything, according to me, is a learning experience. If it’s a job done well, you need to analyse it. If it’s only half done, you still need to analyse. And if it’s not been done, then you need to start evolving. So to answer your question, I am looking to evolve, I have evolved enough, but the process never stops.
Harbhajan Singh is one of the very few instances of a senior cricketer being asked to step aside in Indian cricket. Normally, for better or for worse, we hold on to our seniors. Does being compared to him constantly increase the pressure on you?
In all fairness, he is one of the greats of the game. Not just in Indian cricket, but in world cricket. But outside of that, I think I have earned my place on the basis of what I have done. I haven’t replaced Harbhajan. I look at what I have done and want to improve in the future. So there is no pressure on me. There is a big difference between a bowler and a batsman. If you look at Sachin Tendulkar who has played for 21 years; a bowler can never play for so long. I don’t know if it has happened in the past, but it can’t happen in the future with the amount of cricket that’s being played. So you should be evolving to stay at the highest level. Otherwise you should really know when to put a full stop.
Well, you have a Test hundred already, so if you have to be a batsman to play for 20 years, you’re setting yourself up for that as well, aren’t you?
(Laughs) I take my cricket very seriously. I breathe cricket. I still play a lot of cricket with my friends in my backyard, which actually gives me a lot more pleasure than what I do for my living. Whatever I do, whether it’s cricket or not, I try to do with utmost sincerity and perfection. So whether it is batting or bowling or fielding, I give it my all. Batting is actually not very alien to me. It comes to me quite naturally. The top-quality players in the team helped me learn. So batting is something I am extremely confident at. You send me in to bat any time, I am confident of getting runs.