Nine players on the Indian hockey team that won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Games come from an academy alone. Indian ice hockey captains Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Hardik Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Shamsher Singh, Simranjeet Singh and Krishan Pathak honed their skills at the legendary Surjit Hockey Academy in Burlton Park, Jalandhar.
But before hockey took off, Burlton Park in Jalandhar was known for producing one of India’s finest cricketers – Harbhajan Singh. The masterful off-spinner, who also welded his fabulous skills with rare temperament, began his journey here.
A 13 year old loner
Devinder Arora first discovered Harbhajan while playing Gully Cricket with children his age. “We used to live in the same Mohalla (place). It was the first time I saw him play Gully cricket. I was excited about his unique action, ”Arora told The Indian Express.
“I started my coaching career in 1992 and Harbhajan was my first apprentice. 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 potential. ‘
“The first time I saw him bowling, I was surprised at how much bounce he created. At that moment I was sure that he would play for India. Still, in my wildest dream, I never would have thought that he would one day play 100 friendly matches for India, ”recalls Arora, who had played ten first-class games for Punjab before a premature knee injury ended his career.
The moment that tore the coach off his feet came during a U-15 inter-district cricket tournament in Patiala. “We played against Amritsar in 1993 on the grounds of the Yadvindra Public School in Patiala. Before the throw, when inspecting the playing field, I noticed a couple of ants crawling out of the surface six inches outside the tree stump. I tapped the spot and it was very soft. I informed Harbhajan about this. He got 15 wickets and we won the match completely, ”said Arora.
Its precision stands out. “What impressed me the most was that he bowled 90% of his delivery in the same place,” he added. Over the years, the awkward leap and pace it generated off the pitch made it fatal.
Play in the headlights of the scooter
Arora says that Harbhajan was always an avid learner and was so in love with the game that he even practiced in Scooter’s headlights just to get more practice.
“When it got dark in the evening, he would take the key to my scooter, turn on the light, and practice 30-45 minutes longer. He would never go home until he was satisfied, ”he said.
“I once told him to attack clubs outside of the stump more consistently. I kept a 25 paise coin outside the tree stump and he tirelessly bowled on that coin for the next week until he reached perfection, ”he added.
Among a number of attributes, his aggression stood out. “His temperament was like that of a fast bowler. The aggression was his bonus point and always got the best out of him. His approach to the game has always been the same, be it in U-15 or international cricket. He always loved good competitive cricket, ”said Arora.
The aggression streak was not limited to his bowling. He was always right in the thick of the action – be it in the ‘Monkeygate’ episode, beating S Sreesanth during the IPL match or racing with the Indian tricolor after the famous victory in Perth in 2008.
Quit cricket, almost
Harbhajan had revealed several times how he almost quit cricket after his father’s death in 2000 and moved abroad after a difficult period in his life.
After making his international debut in 1998, Harbhajan Singh was removed from the team and from the National Cricket Academy on disciplinary grounds. Months later, his father died and he went into a negative state of mind.
“A return to the Indian team seemed unlikely to me at the time. There were so many negative things and I had the feeling that all roads to play cricket at the highest level were closed to me, ”Harbhajan Aakash Chopra said on the later YouTube channel.
He was ready to do anything for a living. “I once decided to give up everything and go abroad to work. I had a couple of friends there. I was willing to work on pumps or wash utensils so my family wouldn’t have any problems here, ”he added.
“He wanted to quit cricket and go abroad when his father died. He fell into depression. He was about to quit cricket. He couldn’t cope with the loss of his father. After 2-3 months he finally started playing cricket again. Myself, his mother and my sisters made it clear to him that he wanted to play for India, ”recalls Arora.
In the 2001 series against Australia, Anil Kumble’s injury gave him a rare break. He grabbed it with both hands and took 32 wickets in the series when India halted Australia’s 16 game winning streak to win the series 2-1. It was just the beginning of a fruitful career in which he claimed 417 test wickets and 269 ODI wickets, in addition to winning the T20I and the 2011 World Cup. And it all started at Burlton Park in Jalandhar.