‘Let me tell you a secret / Put it in your heart and keep it’… George Michael had urged the world to ‘Listen without Prejudice’. Vinod Kambli, at the peak of his powers, had wowed us enough to watch his batting without prejudice.
The analogy between the departed English singer-songwriter and the former India middle-order batsman is not misplaced. “George Michael is my all-time favourite, as also Kishore da (Kumar),” Kambli’s voice still revs up on the other side of the phone. He returns to his teens, when, along with Sachin Tendulkar, he had stitched a 664-run partnership, playing for Shardashram Vidyamandir against St Xavier’s High School in a Harris Shield semifinal. “Throughout the partnership, between overs, I was humming George Michael’s song,” Kambli recounts.
That was February 1988. Tendulkar made his India debut a year later. Kambli had to wait a bit longer but when in early 1993 he eventually got into the Test side, the left-hander made a dash through the flight of stairs to reach the top. His stay there was short-lived but that’s a different story.
Kambli’s Test average against England is 105.66. A 224 at Wankhede Stadium in his debut series contributed immensely to it. Unfortunately, he never played against England after that series. India still weren’t the game’s superpower and cricket’s old superpower, England, preferred to maintain a tenuous link to the Orient, Test series-wise. More importantly, Kambli wasn’t consistent enough to be part of the Test squad that toured the Blighty in 1996 – a series that gave Indian cricket Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid.
His 224 against England at Wankhede was somewhat path-breaking, for the batsman, a callow 21-year-old then, had shown the ‘temerity’ to defy the Bombay school of batting and still score a double hundred. His immediate predecessors at No. 3, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, were cut from the traditional cloth – wearing down the bowlers and scoring runs, playing along the carpet. Kambli’s high backlift wasn’t a purist’s delight. His propensity to hit the ball in the air, if the ball was there to be hit aerially, was a major departure from the Bombay batting copybook.
But Ajit Wadekar, then India coach, didn’t mind it despite being a Bombay maidan thoroughbred himself. That was important. “He was like my father, although I called him Jithia, as his former India teammates used to call him. He gave me the freedom to express. Azhar also. That innings on my home ground had a build-up over the previous two Tests,” Kambli told The Indian Express.
In fact, it had been a slow but steady build-up. “The first Test in Calcutta, I got out for a very low score in the first innings but I and Sachin remained not out in the second innings. I carried the confidence of being not out to the second Test, on a very good pitch at Chepauk. They (England) had Phil DeFreitas, Devon Malcolm and Chris Lewis (as fast bowlers) and the ball was travelling. Scoring runs on that track was a challenge. I went to bat at No. 3, got a half-century (59), but I was very disappointed with myself, more so because I got out leg-before to a spinner. And then the third Test came. I went to bat, saw the entire situation and started playing my natural game. It was a turning track but I just played my shots. I went with the flow.”
The irreverence of youth had a rush of blood as well. England wasted their opportunities. On 57, Kambli mistimed a John Emburey delivery, but DeFreitas at long-off dropped a sitter. The young batsman, though, didn’t get bogged down. He showed the maturity of putting the previous ball behind him and focus on the next. His grooming under Ramakant Achrekar helped.
“(From the very beginning) I was a stroke-player who liked to play his shots. Achrekar sir saw something in me and he always encouraged me to play my natural game. His words to me used to be like, ‘if you don’t try to dominate the bowler, the bowler will get you out; whether it’s a fast bowler or a spinner. Never let the bowlers dominate you’. Those were the golden words that I carried to Test cricket also.”
England had sent a strong squad for the 1992-93 series. Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton, Robin Smith, Mike Gatting and Graeme Hick were their top six batsmen. And on a turning Wankhede pitch, they had the experienced Emburey and Phil Tufnell’s guile. After the reprieve, Kambli reached his maiden Test hundred almost unhindered, but he had a tendency to shuffle across the stumps and towards the latter half of his innings was doing it a little too much. From the commentary box, the master detected it.
“Sunil Gavaskar was my idol, as also Sachin’s. I was batting on 179 overnight. He was doing commentary. After the day’s play he came down and told me, ‘Vinod, your leg stump is opening up’. The next morning, I corrected it and went on to score the double century. After the innings, he came to me and gave me his sunglasses.”
Wankhede was full to witness the home boy’s double century. And Kambli was nearing 236 – the highest individual score by an Indian batsman then; by Gavaskar against the West Indies. Kambli departed 12 runs shy of the target. Any regrets?
“None at all. To start with, I wasn’t even aware of the record when I was batting. And at the end of the day, the legend, my idol, himself congratulated me. Your first double century in front of your home fans, what more you can ask for.” For the record, Kambli had a 194-run partnership with Tendulkar for the third wicket.
On-field swearing and ugly send-offs weren’t en vogue those days. But the fielding side always gave the batters some lip, and Kambli had been a greenhorn, cutting his teeth in top-level cricket against some very experienced players. Did the Poms try to get under his skin during the innings?
“Sunil Gavaskar told me, ‘if they try to get to you, ignore them and concentrate on your batting’. But they didn’t say anything. Growing up, I have seen Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting bat. I admired them. They were a wonderful side. Hick scored a magnificent century in that game. We dominated the entire series but they never did anything that wasn’t cricket.”
The Bombay Test was played from February 19-23, 1993. When Zimbabwe came next month for a one-off Test in Delhi, Kambli hit a strokeful 227, maintaining a strike rate north of 75. A few months down the line, he went to Sri Lanka and scored two more Test hundreds. For those six-odd months, the left-hander from Kanjurmarg was virtually the name of the game in the country. But the magic gradually faded away.
“I made nine comebacks. I loved the game so much,” Kambli says. He even cracks a joke, “If I were to start my career now, the only thing I would have done differently was to bat right-handed.” But why did a batsman of his talent underachieve? “I am (still) trying to find the answer.”
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