Nayan Mongia was regarded as the country's best wicketkeeper in the 1990s. He served the Indian team with distinction for around a decade after taking over the mantle from Kiran More. He not only provided the assurance behind the stumps, but also contributed with some vital knocks late down the order when needed.
A career that spanned 44 Tests and 140 one-day internationals came to an abrupt, and controversial, end when he was shockingly dropped from the Indian team after the Kolkata Test against Australia in 2001. He never made it back to the team though he continued playing domestic cricket for Baroda for a few years before calling it quits in December 2004.
During the match-fixing investigations, Mongia was questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation over his alleged links with bookmakers, but was cleared of all involvement.
After his departure, India never really found a settled wicket-keeper till the swashbuckling Mahendra Singh Dhoni arrived on the scene.
Special Correspondent Harish Kotian recently caught up with Mongia in Vadodara.
Your take on Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
Dhoni is just fantastic. He has done superbly, not just for himself but also the country.
Dhoni was rewarded for his good showing in domestic cricket and junior cricket. He played for India 'A' and did well on a couple of tours for India 'A'. In fact, he dislodged Dinesh Kaarthik from the Indian team in terms of sheer batting abilities.
Kaarthik was doing well when Dhoni arrived on the scene. He was keeping well in Tests, but Dhoni's batting abilities helped him become India's number one wicket-keeper.
Dhoni has done very well since coming into the Indian team. He has progressed in every game and his keeping has improved a lot. His batting was always good, but now his keeping has improved considerably since making his debut.
He is a welcome change on the Indian wicket-keeping scene.
What does Dhoni need to work on?
You are never a complete cricketer; you always have to work on your game, whether you have played one Test match or 100 Test matches. You have to strive to improve every day and can never take anything for granted. You have to keep learning as you keep playing and that is how you improve.
You were regarded as one of the best wicket-keepers on slow pitches. What is important for a wicket-keeper while keeping on subcontinental pitches?
On Indian wickets there is uneven bounce, so he should always watch the ball and get up late, with the ball. That is because it keeps low on Indian pitches. So if you get up early then it becomes difficult to go down. That is the most important thing to note when keeping in Indian conditions.
Who was the most difficult you ever kept wickets against?
Anil Kumble was the most difficult bowler I ever kept against. He was especially difficult in sub-continental conditions because of the uneven bounce in the pitches. He also used to get a lot of bounce, which also made it more difficult.
But the good thing while keeping against him was that he was very accurate and always used to bowl on the stumps. I think very rarely did he drift down the legside or the offside.
Is it important for a 'keeper to read the bowler? Did you manage to read Kumble's variations, something which many batsmen have failed to do over the years?
Today also, if you wake me in the middle of the night, I will be able to read whether he is bowling a googly or left-spin or a faster delivery.
The most memorable moment during your career?
I think it was the one-off Test against Australia at Delhi, in 1996-97, when I scored 152 and claimed five victims in the match. It's very rare for a wicket-keeper to score a century and take five victims in a Test match.
In that match, I also completed one of the best stumpings of my career, when I stumped Ian Healy off Kumble. I got the man of the match award and it was a very proud moment for me.
What made it sweeter was that we won the match.
What is necessary to be a good wicket-keeper?
First of all, a wicket-keeper has to be a natural; then you can work on the finer points. 'Keepers are not made; it has to come naturally.
At what age can you identify that a kid has the potential to be a good wicket-keeper?
Once a kid is around 12-13, you canidentify from his keeping in the matches and practice sessions whether he has got the natural ability, the reflexes, the movement. The way he gathers the balls and also the basics he follows give you a good idea to judge whether he can be groomed into a good wicket-keeper or not.
Do you think wicket-keepers get their due?
Wicket-keepingis a specialised job. Only one wicket-keeper can play in a team. It's a thankless job. You need to put in real hard work every day you come out in the middle.
Themost important thing is that you must enjoy keeping. You don't get much of importance in the team as a bowler or a batsman gets, but you have to live by that. That's why I say it's a thankless job.
Butnow I think the trend has changed. Keeping is gaining some importance and the wicket-keepers are gaining some recognition. Now all the teams want an all-rounder as their 'keeper so he can contribute with the bat along with his keeping.
In an earlier interview you told us that you were angry at the way you were dropped from the Indian team in 2001? You still harbour that feeling?
Ohyes! I have always wanted to know the reason why I was dropped from the Indian team after that Test match against Australia in 2001. Till today I do not know the reason why I was dropped.
Ifeel I had a few years left in me then, as I was batting well and keeping well. I could have played a few more matches for India. Yes, I was injured during the second Test against Australia in Kolkata, but then in Chennai I passed a fitness test and was fit for the third Test.
But,shockingly, at the last moment I was told I am not playing and, believe me, it really hurt a lot.
Iwould definitely like to clarify that fitness was never the reason for my omission as I was fully fit.
Infact, the next day, I went to play a Ranji Trophy match for Baroda against Tamil Nadu. I scored a 70-odd in that match and also did a good job behind the wickets and we won that game.
What was going through your mind after that incident?
Suchan incident would no doubt affect your confidence a great deal. I felt really sad that after having played so many years for the country and giving it your best, such a thing had to happen to me.
Ialways think that whenever you drop a player you must explain to him why he was dropped from the team.
Theselection committee must explain their decision and tell the player what he needs to work on. That kind of communication between the players and selectors is necessary. But unfortunately that didn't happen in my case. I am yet to know why I was dropped.
You played a few matches along with Irfan Pathan for Baroda a few years back. What do you think has gone wrong form him lately?
Basically,he is trying too much at the moment.
Heis struggling, but it is up to him to improve. Whether it is bowling, batting or wicketkeeping, it is a question of confidence. One good knock or a good spell can help get back to form.
Whathe can do is look at the videos of his previous matches and try to analyse what went wrong. He can work on it accordingly and try to improve. A lot of people will say a lot of things, which would be very confusing, so the best thing is to leave him alone.
Pathanneeds to bowl a lot in domestic matches and try to work on his basics. I think it is just a matter of time before he gets his rhythm back.
Was it right to send him back mid-way from the South Africa tour?
Once you have been picked in the Test squad and then dropped mid-wayit always hurts. But he must look at the positive side of things.
Ifhe had been in South Africa, he would have not played the third Test. So I think it is beneficial for him that he can play domestic matches, which gives him the chance to work on his problems.
Thebenefit for him is that he can bowl in matches and try to get his confidence back.
How have you kept busy since retiring from cricket?
Ihave been busy with my family business in the last few years. I have been helping my dad run the pharma-surgical equipment business, so I was involved with that. I also did some coaching at my club here in Baroda, which involved small boys.
Nowthis season, I am doing some commentary for domestic matches.