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December 15, 1998


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The Cricket Interview/ Vinod Kambli

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Nowhere man!

Vinod Kambli He took the elevator, I am taking the stairs, but both of us are headed for the top.'

That was how Vinod Ganpat Kambli famously described the respective careers of himself and his childhood chum, Sachin Tendulkar.

Despite that prognosis, Kambli looked to be on the express escalator when, in only his third Test, against England in Bombay in 1993, he scored a magnificent double century (224) and followed it up with another double hundred (227) against Zimbabwe in the one-off Delhi Test.

That put the stylish southpaw on par with Don Bradman and Wally Hammond as the only batsmen ever to score double centuries in successive innings.

And just when you thought that would be a hard act to follow, Kambli in the very next series in Sri Lanka made scores of 125, 4 and 120 in three innings. If you haven't been counting, that makes two double hundreds and two centuries in four successive Tests --and his aggregate after ten Test innings was higher than even Bradman's. The icing on the cake came when Kambli became the fastest Indian to get to the 1000 Test run mark, getting there in his 14th Test innings.

Just when he was getting installed as the pin-up boy of Indian cricket, Kambli slumped. Consistency and a hunger for runs, his trademarks thus far, were both missing. His downslide began in the 1994 home series against the West Indies, and critical opinion was that he was wanting in both the technique and the temperament to deal successfully with the quality fast bowling of Courtney Walsh, Kenneth Benjamin and others.

Kambli was never the same again, struggling to find a place in the Indian side in both forms of the game. His Test record, statistically speaking, remains staggering -- but the impression gaining ground was that his success was as transient as it was dazzling.

His personality, directly contradictory to the goodie-goodie image the Indian cricket establishment prescribes, also went against him. Charges of wild behaviour got him in trouble in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 World Cup and, around the same time, India found another world-class left-handed batsman in Saurav Ganguly.

Then Kambli managed a comeback -- only to crack his ankle while he was fielding as a substitute. That was probably the last straw. Although recuperating still, Kambli hopes to be fully fit soon and even aspires to be a part of India's scheme of things in the 1999 World Cup in England.

In response to the tons of e-mail we have been getting from fans wanting the latest on VK, Haresh Pandya interviewed the flamboyant cricketer at length.

This ankle injury must have knocked your plans to cement your place in the side for a six...

The injury was a shock to me personally, as it was to the people close to me, because I was in the middle of a comeback, never thought something like this would happen to me. But it was probably written in my destiny, and so I've taken it in my stride.

How have you coped with the long layoff?

I've tried to keep myself busy in these last seven months or so, doing a lot of exercises and watching a fair amount of cricket on television, I've almost spent a lot of time trying to re-assess my career.

Having recently undergone a similar injury (Haresh was involved in an accident, and ended up with a broken leg, recently -- Ed one knows how tough it can be, mentally and physically. What motivated you to hang in there?

For me, the big motivator was the drive to get back into the Indian team, that desire, that drive has kept me motivated through these long months of injury and recuperation. If it weren't for that need, that desire, it is hard to get motivated enough to work on the physiotherapy bit. But I've kept my determination levels very high, and I'm very confident that when I come back into the national side, I'll come back with a vengeance.

You have just begun appearing for Mumbai in Ranji fixtures, how fit are you at the moment?

I think at the moment I am 60 to 70 per cent fit. I have been running up to three runs around the stadium and, importantly, my leg is getting better and better. I'm glad my Mumbai team has allowed me to play, it has given me a lot of confidence. The support I have received from my coach, my selectors, is very encouraging. Of course, I am taking a break from the Duleep Trophy.

How long before you are fully fit again?

I would aim for January. Dr Ali Irani has advised me to go by feel when I am exerting my leg. Every evening I give him my progress report. Meanwhile I am doing my regular physiotherapy and also practising a lot in the nets. It should do me a world of good.

And what is the immediate goal you have in mind?

Playing for the country, obviously. I would love to be part of the World Cup squad, but there are many series prior to that, and so the bottomline is, I would like to make it back into the squad as soon as humanly possible.

But the World Cup would be really special, I guess...

Sure, that is when the whole world is watching you. If I get to play, it will be my third World Cup, and that is something really special, something to shoot for.

Speaking of the whole world watching, we all remember you walking off the ground in tears as India lost to Sri Lanka in the semifinals of the Wills World Cup at Eden Gardens in Calcutta...

Vinod Kambli I think I just became very emotional, at that point. Losing -- more so, having the match abandoned, going down without fighting all the way, felt very bad. But I'd like to promise my countrymen that India will do very well in the coming World Cup. Most probably we will win it, and come back smiling this time.

The India cap obviously means a lot to you...

A lot? It means more than anyone could imagine. After all the struggle that I went through, I realised how important it was to wear the India cap when I finally got it. You've to work hard, you've to try your utmost to deserve it. I think I was dying to get it because when Sachin (Tendulkar) got it, I too was determined to follow in his footsteps one day. I was very happy, very thrilled when I eventually got the cap, made my debut for the country. I still remember, it was Ashok Mankad who gave it to me. Even now, when we got our new Mumbai caps, it was Mankad, again, who gave me mine.

When you started out, you seemed to be in a zone of your own, what was behind that incredible start to your career?

I'm a natural strokeplayer but I had never thought that I would score back to back double centuries. No doubt I was a newcomer, but I kept playing my natural game. I was determined to score runs and also to prove a point or two in the process. As you know, it is not easy to score a double century and so I could not believe my eyes when I scored two in a row. I was also happy about my performance in Sri Lanka.

And then it all went horribly wrong...

Yeah, against the West Indies. It was a technical thing, actually. Normally I am a front-foot player, they realised that, began bowling short and I couldn't adjust in time. They started bowling short and somehow I could not adjust to it. I learnt my lessons, had long sessions with Sachin, we talked a lot about the technical side of my batting, we worked on ways to counter short-pitched stuff. I also sought guidance from many senior players, too, started practising with a rubber ball to correct my technique. Now I even hook and pull quite comfortably.

But in light of your failure against the Windies, isn't your earlier flurry of runs somewhat suspect? I mean, wasn't the quality of the English, Zimbabwean and Sri Lankan bowling inferior compared to the West Indies attack?

No, not at all, they all had a very good attack. It was Test-class bowling, don't forget. When I scored a double century in the Mumbai Test, the ball was turning a lot from day one. It's not easy to play on a spinning track where the ball turns so much. But yes, the West Indies attack was totally different. I had played against them only in one-dayers, before.

And as I said earlier, I was probably lacking in technique at that time. The line they were bowling, I thought the best way was to attack them. And I succeeded a bit in Mumbai when I scored 40-odd runs. I thought I was playing well and I was quite disappointed when I got out.

Apart from lack of technique, were you not suffering from the pressure of living up to people's expectations after your heavy scores earlier?

No, nothing of the kind. Expectations were high, sure, but that had nothing to do with my performance. Generally, ups and downs are part of a career, in any walk of life, and I think that was a problem with me, too. Not everyone can be like Sachin, in fact there is none like him. In my case, I guess I was unlucky -- I mean, when I got to 1,000 runs in 14 Test innings, I was a hero -- but after 17 Tests in all, I am not found good enough for another cap, how do you explain that?

Sorry to harp on this, Vinod, but surely there must have been some element of psychological pressure on you? After all, you and Sachin both grew up together, played together, shared that world record partnership together, people probably expected you to perform at the level Tendulkar attained...

Sachin Tendulkar Actually, whenever Sachin is there at the other end, the understanding between us is so good that if he hits a four, I don't take it as a challenge. If I get a loose delivery, I am going to whack it, anyway, but if I don't get one, no big deal. There has been no competition between us as such. I know people expect a lot of runs from me, just like they do from Sachin. I try my best to fulfill their expectations. It's not that I don't try. I try, I try and I try. If I don't succeed, even I feel bad about it. Everybody does.

Does his presence in the team act as inspiration?

Of course, it does. He is such a thinking cricketer and a perfect team-man. When I play alongside him, he helps me so much. Of course, he helps others as well. He provides a lot of motivation to other players. His presence is very, very important in the side for the others. Whenever we are together, we talk a lot about cricket. And I hope when I finally make a comeback, we will again do the same. It will not only motivate me, it will help keep me upbeat.

From stunning success to sudden failure -- how does one cope?

You accept it like a sportsman, because success and failure are both part of a sportsman's life. Cricket is a very unpredictable sport, which you must always remember. Sadly, many uncomfortable things were said about me, that early success had gone to my head and so on and so forth -- none of which was true. I am still the same guy I always was.

Strangely, marriage appears to have had a bad effect on your performance...

I think that has nothing to do with my marriage -- after one failure, against the Windies, I never got a chance to really prove myself again. It is not like I got the chance and failed, remember -- after all, I have only played 17 Tests, like I pointed out, whereas players who debuted after me have gone way beyond that point. So if you are looking for a reason, look at lack of opportunity.

So how did you feel, the first time you were dropped?

I took it in my stride, went back to the Mumbai team, began scoring runs, got the highest number of runs in domestic competition that year. I took it as a challenge. If, for instance, I've scored 1000 runs in a season, that is not enough for me. So the next time I strike for more. I never feel content scoring runs, I can never have enough.

What did Sachin tell you when you were dropped?

Basically, not to worry, to continue playing my natural game.

You made a series of mini-comebacks, how do you assess them?

I think I did fairly well, when I was called back for the Wills World Cup, though I did not play in Sharjah prior to that event. I was determined to do well. In the first couple of matches I did not score many runs because I did not get many overs to bat. But I was pleased about that 100 against Zimbabwe. I was also happy when we made it to the semis.

What are your memories of that semifinal against the Lankans at Calcutta?

crowd behaviour during the semifinal against the Lankans at Calcutta At one particular point in the semifinal, wickets were falling at the other end while I was at the crease, so I saw it as a challenge. In cricket, you should never give in till the last ball is bowled. Luckily, Anil Kumble was my partner and he can bat pretty well, so I was confident. However, at that point, the match was conceded due to those unfortunate circumstances. The simple fact was that we did not lose the match -- it was conceded. At that point, I was so focused on the job, so emotionally evolved, I could not cope with the let-down, I broke down and cried.

How did you feel about the crowd behaviour?

I think they shouldn't have behaved the way they did, they should have kept their cool, given us a chance to win or lose on the field of play. Calcuttans are basically very, very sporting people. Maybe they were upset and probably though that we were going to lose. I think that's why they began interrupting in the middle. I felt very bad about it. Calcutta has always been a good, sporting centre. And the Calcuttans know the game very well, understand it very well. That's why they always come in thousands at the Eden Gardens to watch and enjoy cricket.

'They cheered me even when I was on crutches'


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