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Life on a fast track

Following a dramatic roller-coaster ride in domestic cricket,former Mumbai and Railways pacer Santosh Saxena calls it a day.

Written by Devendra Pandey | Published: May 8, 2012 2:08 am

Following a dramatic roller-coaster ride in domestic cricket,former Mumbai and Railways pacer Santosh Saxena calls it a day

In cricket-crazy Mumbai,conversations about the city’s foremost obsession are never too far away. From malls to coffee-shops,banks and board-rooms and even in the many crowded nooks and crannies in the city,cricket is omnipresent. It’s on everyone’s lips. And there are a billion opinions.

In his routine train journey from home in Kandivili to the railway office at CST,Santosh Saxena has been a witness to many such cricketing discussions. On most occasions,he just minds his own business.But he especially cannot help but strain his ears and listen in whenever the chosen subject for the day is the lack of Indian fast bowlers in the domestic circuit.

Even at 36,Saxena retains his impressive physique that has always attracted attention from his heydays. He doesn’t attract too many second looks from his fellow passengers in the swarming local train these days while they indulge in their debates about the country’s pace bowling resources. There was a time though when the athletically-built Saxena came within shouting distance of a pace berth alongside Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad in the Indian team. When he almost experienced a tryst with superstardom. An outing on the grandest stage of them all.

That it never happened is not something Saxena has too many regrets about. Not all dreams come true after all. There were larger issues at hand that required tending to. Yes,greater than even playing Test cricket for your country.

Saxena announced his retirement from all cricket recently,almost three years after his last domestic game. And like with all sportsmen,this is a time for him to cast a nostalgic look at his life on the cricket field.

Despite the disappointments along the way,a trip down memory lane doesn’t lead to any sombre emotions for Saxena anymore. He takes pride in having made his first-class debut under the leadership of Sachin Tendulkar. To have shared a dressing-room with the likes of Tendulkar and many others he worshipped and strived to emulate like Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli itself feels like a fantasy,he says now. And words of appreciation and compliments pour in from the highest places. His former captain for one.

“He (Saxena) was a promising bowler when I saw him first. He bowled beautiful outswingers .The decision to play him in Ranji Trophy was good because he had the ability to bowl wicket-taking deliveries consistently,” Tendulkar tells Sportsline now.

India material

There are some who even think he was good enough to play for India. But for someone who has experienced an array of pitfalls of life,from selling vegetables to working in a tyre company,all with a purpose of earning two meals in a day and working up a self-sufficient life for both himself and his family always the journey has been a satisfactory one,he insists. Saxena insists to have not been aware of the significance of the Ranji Trophy before he actually got selected for the Mumbai team for the first time. “Just imagine a scenario where one day I am struggling to get two square meals and I’m at the nets of the Mumbai team bowling to the great Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar the next day. I was mere a tennis ball player,who would play for anyone to earn a mere 100 rupees,” says Saxena.

And the man responsible for identifying his talent and promoting him from complete oblivion to a first-class cricketer,takes great pride in his pick even now.

Manjrekar only had to face the young pacer a couple of times in local matches to realize the raw talent that was on show. And the former India middle-order batsmen didn’t think twice before fast-tracking Saxena into the Mumbai team.

“I saw him as a natural seam bowler,who could not bowl badly even if he tried. He was safe pick for me that way. I saw him in two matches I played in and thought this guy could be fast tracked.I then sought a second opinion on him from Sachin (Tendulkar). And Sachin seconded my choice,” explains Manjrekar.

Saxena still has to pinch himself while recalling his fairy tale journey into the Mumbai first XI. Especially his debut against Gujarat in Valsad in November 1997. The rookie pacer delivered 17 no-balls,and ended up with only a single wicket in the match. Serious question marks were raised about why Saxena had to be picked out of nowhere,when Mumbai still boasted an impressive pace attack,which included the likes of Paras Mhambrey and Abey Kuruvilla. Saxena though was given another go against Maharashtra and here he stood out finishing with four wickets.

“Manjrekar came and told me,mein tujhe mandir dekha diya hoon aur ab kaise chalna hai who tu khud tai karna hai. I still remember those lines. People always say that I should have played for India but that jersey was not in my destiny. I’m lucky to have played cricket at that level and that too for so long,” he adds now.

Among the batsmen he dismissed in the Maharashtra team was present national selector Surendra Bhave,a dogged right-handed opener back in the day. And Bhave too recalls having been impressed by Saxena’s performance. “He was one of the fantastic bowlers of my time,a fine fielder and a gentlemen too. Saxena played a major role in Mumbai’s two Ranji Trophy title wins during that period. He had a superb out-swinger at good pace that could deceive any batsman.” reveals Bhave.

Saxena played five seasons for Mumbai,picking up 50 wickets at 34.50 apiece. Not the most impressive numbers,but good enough to attract the national selection committee of the time. The sky seemed the limit now for the rugged pacer. He even picked up sterling figures of 6/65 in the Ranji semi-final against Hyderabad,including the wicket of Mohammad Azharuddin. But while national recognition seemed imminent,Saxena still lived a life of hope and despair off it. He still resided in the slums of Bandra East,and unlike in these days of the IPL,a domestic cricketer,especially one from a modest background,still required a job to make ends meet. Public sector companies were not as willing as now to offer vacancies to domestic cricketers. He did have a part time job at Orient Shipping,who were so impressed with his talent that they sent him to

Australia and South Africa to train and work further on his bowling.

Move gone wrong

It was former India pacer Balwinder Singh Sandhu,however,who then played a crucial role in scoring a job for Saxena with the Central Railways. A move that would play a pivotal role in Saxena’s cricket career. Unfortunately not for the best.

“He was a very good bowler and for a boy coming from his kind of background was not easy to make it to where he did. If he would have got a job in Mumbai that time he would have definitely played for India. He moved to Railways and there he only got chances intermittently,” Jaffer said.

The Railways team,who enjoyed their most success during the time Saxena was part of the squad,themselves boasted of a strong new-ball attack,which comprised of seasoned campaigners JP Yadav,Sanjay Bangar and Harvinder Singh. And the now former Mumbai pacer found to break into the final XI on a regular basis. Once,Saxena had to warm the bench after having finished with a six-wicket haul at Railways’s home ground,the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi. Overall he finished with 40 wickets at an average of 25.

“If you see my career graph then I have played nearly 40 first class games and also warmed the bench for nearly 50 first class games. People told me to stay back in Mumbai but there is nothing more important than securing your family first. Railways gave me shelter,it might look now as a wrong decision to have gone ther,but getting a job was my major priority back then,” the pacer,who finished with 94 wickets at 30.62 explains.

Having signed a three-year bond with the Railways team,Saxena was bound to stay back despite the lack of opportunites. Even a job opportunity with ONGC,which would have brought him back to Mumbai went abegging.

By the time,Saxena decided to finally move back to Mumbai,age unfortunately wasn’t quite on his side. And the one-year cooling period required to make him eligible again wasn’t worth the wait,he insists. And thus ended a career that promised much but never really took off as expected. Cricket still plays a crucial role in Saxena’s life. He spends most of his time either coaching school teams,and still remains a tennis-ball phenom,participating in every major prize-money tournaments around the city. Recently,he was also honoured with a chief-guest appearance during one of these local tournaments.

The small-time recognition not only is much-deserved,but it also makes all the hard work worth it. And Saxena doesn’t mind being just another stranger eavesdropping on cricketing debates in the local trains.

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