Harbhajan Singh has not played competitive cricket in nearly two years and is entering his first bio-bubble environment since the Covid-19 pandemic began, but feels sure of "what needs to be done" as he prepares to represent his third IPL franchise - the Kolkata Knight Riders - in what will be his 13th IPL season.
"These questions [about playing after a gap] are asked because I haven't played a lot of cricket of late so teams are a bit defensive at auction and they don't want to bid for me," Singh, who was bought by the Knight Riders for INR 2 crore (US$ 273,000 approx.) in the 2021 auction, told PTI. "But let me remind all that when I did well for CSK in 2019 IPL, I hadn't played any domestic cricket. I came to the camp, prepared and went into the match. At my level and experience, I know what needs to be done.
"I don't need to play domestic cricket for Punjab and stop a young talent from flourishing. That boy needs that chance more than me."
Singh, 40, had pulled out of last year's IPL, when he was part of the Chennai Super Kings, because of "personal reasons" and had said "family takes precedence over sport". He said he felt more confident now about being in a bubble because the IPL as back in India and people "have now got used to new normal".
"Last year, when IPL happened, Covid-19 in India was at its peak," he said. "I was concerned about my family and also about hard quarantine in India after coming back. But this year, it's happening in India and also we have now got used to new normal. Vaccines have come. Also it's my family which pushed. My wife told me that I should go and play."
Singh had played 11 matches in the 2019 IPL for the Super Kings and picked up 16 wickets while conceding only 7.09 runs per over. Singh played eight of those 11 matches in Chennai and Delhi, where pitches are known to favour spinners more than fast bowlers. This time, he joins the Knight Riders' spin attack of Sunil Narine, Varun Chakravarthy and Kuldeep Yadav, and the franchise has its 14 league games spread across four cities: Chennai (three), Mumbai (two), Ahmedabad (four) and Bengaluru (five).
"We have a good team," Singh said. "T20 is all about three players in a team, could be any three, clicking on that particular day. You see Mumbai Indians are a side which has all its bases covered but they are still beatable. It could be a Rahul Tripathi or a Nitish Rana can win it for us."
Singh has primarily been a T20 player for over three years now, having last played first-class cricket in November 2017, for Punjab in the Ranji Trophy. Since then, he has featured in domestic T20s [Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy] twice and has mainly been playing the IPL since 2018, barring three games in the domestic circuit.
"I have got nothing to prove to anyone. My intention is to play well, enjoy my stint out there in the middle and playing cricket still gives me that satisfaction. I have set a standard for myself and if I don't meet that, I don't need anyone else but I will blame myself. I need to ask myself, 'did I put in the optimum effort that was required'," he said. "Yes, I am not a 20-year-old anymore and won't be training like I did then. But yes, as a 40-year-old, I know I am fit and will certainly do what is required to succeed at this level. The expectation is still going to be there and responsibilities that were there when I was playing for India remains.
"Every season, I introspect if I have it in me to play or not. If I feel I am done, I will say, 'thank you, very much'. If I feel I am doing alright, you will see me next year."