So now we know. Harbhajan Singh is the rattler-in-chief of the Indian team. Whether he takes a clutch of wickets or not in the series against Australia, he is expected to keep the temperature up and provoke the opposition. We can dismiss his utterances as those of a man merely doing his job, or examine how pathetic they sound in the light of India's recent performances both at home and away.
"We will teach Australia how to play cricket," Harbhajan has been quoted as saying. Asked about his prediction for the series, he responded with, "India will win 4-0." In over eight decades of international cricket, India have never won a series by that margin.
There is something charming, almost child-like in this attitude. When India last played Australia, they were thrashed 4-0 (no Australian rattler-in-chief had predicted that), thus ending the careers of two of their major batsmen, the two who had tormented Australia most in recent years: Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman. Having lost 0-4 to England earlier, that made it eight losses in a row against top opposition. Yet, when England came to India last year, it was widely believed that India would continue to be unbeatable at home. That dream too was shattered.
Against this background, Harbhajan's pronouncements take on the import of a Henry V extolling his soldiers at the Battle of Halfleur ("Once more unto the breach..."), although there is no record of the English monarch promising to teach the French how to fight a war.
The psychologist, the bowling coach, the computer analyst are as much part of an international cricket team as the wicketkeeper and the captain. In recent years, a new post has been created or has evolved - certainly from the time when Australia were monarchs of all they surveyed. The Rattler-in-Chief. Before the start of a series, Hayden or Ponting or Warne or McGrath would make dire predictions. Warne would explain the deviousness of a new delivery he had been working on, calling it zooter, hooter or whatever. Hayden would say - if India were the opponents - that the opposing batsmen were all selfish and interested only in personal glory.
All good stuff, sometimes tangentially connected with the truth. But Australia could afford to sound cocky and arrogant. They were the best team in the world, and if they occasionally had to remind the opposition of this, their players were seldom shy or retiring. At any rate, it seemed like part of the strategy. If you could dismiss the batsman before he had entered the stadium or even the city where the Test was being played, you were that much ahead of the game, after all. Steve Waugh gave it a name and thus respectability, by calling the process one of "mental disintegration."
Other teams picked up on the tactic. Pakistan's Shahid Afridi, whose confidence outstripped his record, was happy to be a rattler-in-chief. But Dale Steyn didn't need to do it, nor did Graeme Smith, his captain. But other captains sometimes did even if they did not make a fetish of it. Like Sri Lanka's Arjuna Ranatunga, who said before a World Cup semifinal, "India are not a bad team at all; we do not take them lightly," thus in one patronising stroke making his point as well as depriving Mohammad Azharuddin, his rival, of the opportunity to say the same thing against Sri Lanka.
Sadly, it is difficult to imagine the current Australian team, decidedly weaker than the previous couple of teams to have toured India, mentally disintegrating after Harbhajan's remarks, which no doubt are meant to sting. It doesn't matter if the offspinner means what he says. If India win the series, he can take the credit for having predicted it even if he got a minor detail wrong. If India lose, he can claim he was misquoted. That is another strategy that has been successful in the past.