April 07, 2006

Dilip Vengsarkar reaches a milestone

By H Natarajan

Which former cricketer stood by his principles and turned down the opportunity to become the chairman of the National selection committee?

Which cricketing great resigned from the state selection committee after he contested and lost the vice-presidency in the elections of his state cricket association?

Which cricketer told his association to keep all the money that accrues in excess of the sum he was guaranteed for his benefit match?

In all three instances it was one and the same cricketer. Know the answer? No?

Let me give another clue. He was ranked the No 1 batsman in the world on the Cooper Deloittes computer rating for two successive years?

Well, well…some have figured out the name after the last clue, but I suspect most people may still not have got the answer. And the reason for that is fairly simple: despite his huge contribution for Indian cricket, he has remained low-key and media shy, preferring to work in the background. That possibly explains why he is not infrequently - and unfairly - remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The man in question is Dilip Vengsarkar, whose quantum of runs was next only to Sunil Gavaskar when he bid adieu to international cricket. In fact, at the time of his retirement, the 6868 runs he had amassed were bettered by only 15 batsmen in the history of Test cricket.

On Thursday, April 6, 2006, Vengsarkar turned 50. It’s a pleasure to remember the man, somebody with whom I have interacted closely for most part of his career and thereafter, a man who has brought much glory for Indian cricket. Vengsarkar was still at college (Podar) when he played for India. Just a few paces away from Podar’s nets was my own college’s nets. I remember vividly Podar coach VS Patil giving special attention to his star pupil and often times summoning my college’s best fast bowler to fire away at Vengsarkar.

He made it into the Indian team after an innings of 110 in the 1975-76 Irani Trophy where he hammered seven sixes against an attack that had the likes of EAS Prasanna and Bishan Bedi. It was that innings at Nagpur which gave him the nickname of “Colonel” (a subtle comparison with CK Nayudu), though the recipient himself was never pleased with the sobriquet, flattering though it was.

Vengsakar’s greatest claim to international fame is his achievement of being the only non-English batsman to score three Test hundreds at Lord’s. Wisden honoured him as one of the five Cricketer of the Year in 1987 and noted: “… And this tall, elegant batsman reached his zenith in the summer of 1986 when his two hundreds, one at Lord's and another at Headingley, on one of the poorest Test pitches seen in England for some years, went so far towards India's achieving their 2-0 win in the three-match series. He finished it with an average of 90, by some margin the highest of any Indian batsman in England. Any suspicions that these hundreds were scored against a weak England team can be discounted. In each instance, Vengsarkar, having come in at the fall of the second wicket, was still short of his century when joined by the number eleven batsman. They were innings of the highest quality.”

For all his promise and potential, Vengsarkar was a late bloomer at international level. It was on the tour of Australia in 1977-78 that his career took off as he went on to form the backbone of the Indian batting with Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath. He scored the first of his 17 Test hundreds in his 17th match against West Indies, at Calcutta in 1978-79, adding a record second-wicket stand of 344 with Gavaskar.

In an 18-month span between December 1985 to November 1987 he scored 1819 runs at an average 95.73 in 19 Tests. It was in this high point of his career that he scored his 126* at Lord’s – his third century in three appearances at this venue. He then carved out a memorable 61 and 102 not out on a nightmare of a track at Headingley where the next highest scorer from either side was 36. Those gems set up India's last significant series victory outside the subcontinent. Then followed scores of 164* against Australia, 153 and 166 (another classic on a beast of a track) against Sri Lanka, 96 and 109 against a Pakistan attack comprising Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir, and 102 and 102* against the West Indies pace quartet of Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson, Winston Davis and Winston Benjamin.

But Vengsarkar remained an enigma. The test of any good batsman is often measured by his success in England, where the ball seams copiously. Vengsakar’s success has been exemplary in that regard, but it must all be said that though he has got hundreds against four of the five countries he played against, not one of his overseas Test centuries have come outside England. Also, inexplicable is the fact that for a one-drop batsman, who showed such fine aggression against quality bowling so early in his career, had just one hundred from 129 ODIs.

After the highs of five successive brilliant series came the slump – an irreversible one. It began against New Zealand at home but worsened on the tour to the Caribbean in 1988-89 where he scored 110 runs from four Tests. Though he did adequately well on the 1990 tour to England, he went down and truly under on the trip to Australia in 1991. His last 26 innings produced just 537 runs.

In the 1990-91 domestic season, he scored 869 runs (108.62) from seven Ranji Trophy and 317 (105.66) from three Duleep Trophy matches to amass over 1000 runs in that first class season. He then hit 284 in the following season against MP but he decided it was time to go.

Post-retirement, Vengsarkar was expected to be the national selection committee chairman at the end of Gundappa Vishwanath’s term. Tipped to come in as the replacement for Anshuman Gaekwad, he dropped a bombshell by ruling himself out. He told me: “It’s my belief that a man presiding on the destiny of the nation’s cricketing fortunes should be a competent authority. My personal thinking is that a selector should have figured in a minimum of 25 Tests to know what it takes to play at that level of the game. The present scenario goes against my thinking. I may find myself a helpless party to decision I may not agree to. After much thought I decided I would not like to leave myself open that vulnerable position… I have consistently written against zonal presentation in the selection committee and it would be a sham if I had to be part of it now.”

Though he did not name anybody, it did not require a Sherlock Holmes to figure out who he was talking about. Three of the then five-man selectors - Kishen Rungta, Sambaran Banerjee and MP Pandove – hadn’t played a single match at the highest level.

Not much later, Vengsarkar was defeated in the MCA election when contesting for the vice presidency. He immediately tendered his resignation as Mumbai selection committee chairman and from the association cricket improvement committee. “How can I continue to sit on judgment on the club players when their secretaries have no confidence in me? I got 125 votes out of the 295 polled. That’s less than 50%. It’s on principles that I did not want to be in contention for the national selection committee and it’s on principle again that I did not align myself with either group in the elections.”

Vengsarkar always believed that what he has done for India, Mumbai and for the Elf Cricket Academy should speak for itself and nothing else.

Cricketers are often accused of worshipping the cult of mammon, but Vengsarkar told the Mumbai Cricket Association staging his benefit match against the West Indies in 1994 that any amount accruing over the guaranteed Rs 40 lakh for his testimonial be used for the development of Mumbai cricket.

Be it his academy, be it as a selector, be it finding finance for talented players to undertake tours of England, he has always espoused Mumbai cricket’s cause. In fact, he cried openly after Haryana beat Mumbai by two runs in the 1990-91 Ranji final against Haryana after Abey Kuruvilla was run out, leaving him heart-broken at the other end on139.

It’s unfortunate that people remember for all the wrongs reasons: the time he was deported from Dubai Airport on his way to play cricket in Sharjah, a six month ban for writing syndicated columns in defiance of the BCCI, flying off the handle against an umpire in a local match, inability to hide disappointment as captain against team mates on the field etc. His worst indiscretion was when he told a magazine during the disastrous 1988-89 tour of the West Indies when India lost all five ODIs and three of the four Tests: “They (his team) are tigers until they step outside the country.” It was unbecoming of a captain to let down his mates in public, even if what he said was true.

The late Malcolm Marshall wrote in his autobiography that he did not mind if he “decapitated” Vengsarkar. Marshall was at his fiery best against Vengsarkar, dismissing him 10 times from 27 innings, but the Indian also scored three hundreds and six fifties against a Marshall. Vengsarkar played cricket the hard way and brought out the beast in the opposition.

As long as Lord’s enjoys a sanctimonious presence in cricket, Vengsarkar will enjoy a special place in the Mecca of cricket where a special portrait is grace its pavilion. The MCC will be flying down an artist to Mumbai for painting a portrait of Vengsarkar early next year. Earning a place in cricket’s Hall of Fame is something that he can be justifiably proud of.