Nine players from India’s bronze-medal winning hockey team at the Tokyo Games are from one academy alone. India men’s hockey captain Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Hardik Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Shamsher Singh, Simranjeet Singh, and Krishan Pathak have honed their skills at the legendary Surjit Hockey Academy in Burlton Park, Jalandhar.
But before hockey rose to prominence, Burlton Park in Jalandhar was known for producing one of India’s finest cricketers—Harbhajan Singh. The masterful off-spinner, who welded his marvellous skills with rare feistiness too began his journey here.
A 13-year-old maverick
Devinder Arora first spotted Harbhajan when he was playing gully cricket with kids of his age. “We used to live in the same mohalla (locality). I first saw him playing gully cricket. His unique action got me excited,” Arora told The Indian Express.
“I started my coaching career in 1992, and Harbhajan was my first trainee. I had a very good relationship with his father. They brought Bhajji to me and said, ‘he wants to play cricket; see if he has any potential.’
“The first time I watched him bowl, I was surprised by the amount of bounce he generated. At that moment, I was sure that he was going to play for India. Still, in my wildest dream, I never thought that he would go on to play 100 Test matches for India,” recalled Arora, who had played 10 first-class matches for Punjab before a premature knee injury ended his career.
The moment that swept the coach off his feet came during an U-15 inter-district cricket tournament in Patiala. “We were playing against Amritsar at the Yadvindra Public School ground in Patiala in 1993. Before the toss, while inspecting the pitch, I noticed a few ants creeping out of the surface, six inches outside the off-stump. I patted on that spot, and it was very soft. I informed Harbhajan about it. He went on to take 15 wickets and we won the match outrightly,” said Arora.
His precision stood out. ”What impressed me the most was that he bowled 90% of his delivery on that same spot,” he added. Over the years, the awkward bounce and pace generated off the pitch made him lethal.
Playing in scooter’s headlight
Arora says Harbhajan has always been a keen learner and was so madly in love with the game that he would even practice in Scooter’s headlight just to get more practice under his belt.
“When it got dark in the evening, he used to take the key of my scooter and turn on the lights and would practice for 30-45 minutes more. He would never go home until he was satisfied,” he said.
“Once, I told him that he should attack batters off-stump more consistently. I kept a 25 paise coin outside the off-stump, and he kept on bowling on that coin for the next one-week tirelessly until he achieved perfection,” he added.
Among a raft of attributes, his aggression stood out. “His temperament was like a fast bowler’s. The aggression was his bonus point, and it has always brought the best out of him. His approach toward the game has always been the same, be it in U-15 or international cricket. He always loved good competitive cricket,” said Arora.
The streak of aggression was not limited to his bowling. He has always been in the thick of the action—be it the ‘Monkeygate’ episode, slapping S Sreesanth during the IPL match, or running on the ground with Indian tricolour after the famous win in Perth in 2008.
Quitting cricket, almost
Harbhajan had revealed several times how he almost quit cricket and moved abroad after a difficult period in his life following his father’s death in 2000.
After making his international debut in 1998, Harbhajan Singh was dropped from the team and was removed from the National Cricket Academy on disciplinary grounds. Months later, his father died, and he slipped into a negative state of mind.
“Coming back into the Indian team at that time seemed unlikely for me. There was so much negativity around, and I felt that all roads to play top-level cricket were closed for me,” Harbhajan had told Aakash Chopra on later’s YouTube channel.
He was ready to do anything for a livelihood. ”Once, I also decided to leave everything and go abroad to work. I had a few friends there. I was ready to work at petrol pumps or wash utensils so that my family here would not face any problems,” he added.
“He wanted to quit cricket and go abroad once his father passed away. He went into depression. He was on the brink of quitting cricket. He was not able to cope up with his father’s loss. After 2-3 months, he finally started playing cricket again. Myself, his mother, and sisters made him realise that it was his wish that he should play for India,” Arora recollected.
In the 2001 series against Australia, Anil Kumble’s injury furnished him a rare break. He grabbed it with both hands taking 32 wickets in the series as India halted Australia’s 16-match winning streak to win the series 2-1. It was just the start of a fruitful career that saw him claim 417 Test wickets, and 269 ODI wickets, besides winning the T20I as well as the 2011 World Cups. And it all began at the Burlton Park in Jalandhar.