The 32-year-old Harbhajan, who is the second-most successful off-spinner in Test cricket, after Muttiah Muralidharan, featured in the XI which won the inaugural World Twenty20, in 2007, and the 2011 World Cup.
Recently, Harbhajan spoke to The Telegraph at some length. There were times when he became emotional during the one-on-one.
The following are excerpts
Q Emotionally, you must have gone through a lot since August 2011...
A A tough 12 months or so... It’s hard to describe how I felt, but I experienced the toughest year of my career... Mentally, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and, if you’re not in a happy state, then you can’t do what’s expected of you.
Was your mind cluttered?
All the time, I was just thinking... Sochta tha when I’d be back playing for my country... I’d ask myself why I’d been dropped... Negative thoughts filled my mind... Thankfully, I have a great family and some very good friends... Their encouragement helped me a lot.
It must have been tough on your family too...
Well, yes... It was a different and a difficult experience for them as well. I had to tell them that life has to go on, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
What kept you going?
Deep within, I wanted to again play for the country... That desire kept me going, but I wasn’t feeling that confident... Nobody wants to get dropped, but I was out of the team... I stopped enjoying the game... Mike Horn once spoke to us about “carrying extra baggage...” I’d begun to carry plenty of extra baggage.
But you’d always been the confident type...
Yes, but my confidence had taken a beating... Till I was dropped last year, I’d never been short on self-belief... Gradually, I began telling myself that I’d done everything in the past and there was no reason why I couldn’t take wickets all over again. I wanted to get back to where I belonged, to the stage which made me happy.
So, what changed your thinking?
(Emotionally) Everything starts with something... I remembered some of the things Horn had said... It took me a long time to understand that I had to enjoy what I was doing, that there was a process (to make a comeback)... I felt better in the mind once I stopped worrying about things which just weren’t in my control... I can bowl very well, but still end up wicketless... A sportsman must enjoy what he’s doing.
You didn’t have a great IPL this year... Many were expecting you to make a big statement. What happened?
The IPL was very stressful... I was captaining the Mumbai Indians and thinking of too many things. Probably, my focus wasn’t right. I had to tell myself that the more I bowl, the better I’ll become... The more I’ll become the Harbhajan Singh of old.
Why did you accept the Mumbai Indians captaincy, once Sachin Tendulkar decided to contribute as a batsman only?
Because I was confident of doing well... I like taking up challenges... Not accepting the Mumbai Indians captaincy would have been an easy option, but the franchise had faith in me.
After the IPL, you went to England for a stint with Essex...
I had to, because there was no cricket in India... I had to play and I’d asked my agent to look around for County openings... I chose Essex because I know some of the players there rather well... Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah... I couldn’t have sat at home doing nothing.
As Essex helped you make a comeback, do you intend returning there one more time?
Who knows what’s there in the future? Maybe, once I’ve retired from international cricket, I’ll go back to Essex for a season.
Did you follow India’s performances closely during the time that you were out in the cold?
Not the West Indies’ tour of India, as I was busy playing for Punjab... But, yes, I followed the tour of Australia as I was then at the NCA, undergoing rehab (after a shin problem).
Were there times when the India results left you frustrated?
Yeah... But what could I do? I wanted to be with the team, but that wasn’t to be. I had to accept my position.
Did you specifically keep track of Ravichandran Ashwin’s performances?
No... The team comes first, not individuals.
How do you rate Ashwin?
He has done well.
Much has happened during the time that you were out of the India dressing room... Buddy Sachin, for one, registered his 100th international hundred. It must be a huge regret that you weren’t with him in Dhaka that evening...
Of course. I messaged him straightaway and spoke to him later. As an Indian, I felt so proud.
You were turning out for Essex against Kent when you got the news of your recall. How did you react?
(Emotionally) Felt great... That was the news I’d been waiting for... I’d come to England to try and make a comeback and I’d managed to do so... I felt relieved as well... I was playing in an away-match, in Canterbury... I located a gurdwara and prayed there that evening, after the day’s play.
For all your experience, you’ll be under a lot of pressure the day that you make your comeback...
It won’t be the first time that I’ll be under massive scrutiny... This isn’t my first comeback... Instead of thinking about the pressure, I’ll be looking to enjoy myself... I’m sure I’ll be very excited that day.
Who are you thankful to?
God... He’s the one who gave me the opportunity to play cricket... The ups don’t last forever, nor do the downs... Indeed, when you’re down, you can only move up... How high depends on the individual, in this case, me.
You’re still two short of 100 Test appearances. It was assumed that you’d get to the landmark last year itself. Is that at the back of your mind?
Even I was hoping I’d play the 100th Test last year! Today, more than 100 Tests, I’m looking to play for a further five-six years. I have a bigger goal ahead of me.
Are you aware that you’re not many months away from completing 15 years as an India cricketer?
Nahin... I didn’t realise so many years have gone by.
The last one... What did you learn the most during the time you weren’t being considered for India?
A lot of things... One, that nothing is guaranteed... Neither success, nor money, nor anything... I used to be told about it, but I’ve experienced it myself now... Then, such times reveal who your true friends are... At my peak, a lot of people used to call me regularly, stay in touch... For about a year, though, my phones were rather quiet... But, then, that’s the way of the world... Finally, I’ve learnt never to give up. Things will change if you have the will to change them.