Vinod Kambli walks towards the communal toilet with a bucket in hand. It’s mid-90’s, he has smashed couple of double tons for India, rings discarded by Kapil Dev as bad luck hug his ears and his hair streaks are coloured. He is in the queue at a run-down Worli chawl. His home then. The people ahead of him ask him to go to the loo first. It was the only privilege he had during his early days of cricket with India.
It couldn’t have been more starkly different from the rumblings in the outer world: Oh, the fame has got to his head, he drinks, parties hard, can’t handle money, and doesn’t appreciate what cricket has got him in life.
The reality was something else. In ’93, during a match in Mumbai, Mohammad Azharuddin would float in to Taj in his Mercedes. Kapil Dev glided in his BMW. Sachin Tendulkar too came in a car. Kambli vroomed in on his first vehicle he purchased after becoming India player: a Kinetic Honda. “The Darban used to come, and I would give him the key and say, “Yeh lo mera gaadi laga lo.” He would ask whether he could park it in between the Mercedes and the BMW and I would say Haan haan laga do. Everybody would wait for the valet to get their car na, I also would wait and say, “Mera bike laao. Then hoonnnnnnn karke I would go sabse jyaada stylishly. People would follow me on the bike. From Taj every day to chawl. I sold it off to someone in Pune.”
24 years later, Kambli still has that sunny childish laughter. We are at a restaurant in Bandra, walking distance from his home but one he normally avoids as its too expensive. He is now married to Andrea, who used to be a model (Tanishq jewellery’s first model, he reminds), and has two kids Jesus Christiano and Joanna Christiano. Kambli is now a Christian. “We followed all religions from childhood, when I was wearing that Saibaba amulet in my playing days, I used to also do the cross-sign. I converted on my own will because I found peace and it has really changed me. When people say something negative to me on twitter, I just say God Bless you. It has mellowed me down.”
He considers his second marriage to an “understanding partner” a miracle, his survival after he collapsed in a car the second miracle, and is still surprised at the affection he evokes in fans. “I feel blessed. I still ask the father in confession, why am I still loved, why did I survive that car episode, and got the answer that ‘He loves me, wants something good to happen in my life”.
His Twitter feed can get all religious: gospel quotes, Christ talk, and as the chat meanders for hours, first in that restaurant, and then at his home couple of days later, the penny drops. He is looking for resurrection – for his kids, his wife, and himself. It’s not going to be easy ride for sure.
It never was. Clustered among 22 people in a chawl room, where they would cook and bath in the small space, he grew up in Bhendi Bazaar. This was before the family shifted to Kanjurmarg, and before he took refuge at a friend’s house in Worli chawl during his India days. Cricket consumed him at Bhendi bazaar. A small strip of pitch lay centred in that chawl. “Two runs if it went to first floor, four if it reached second. I would clear easily.” Father Ganpat, a cricketer (“Fast bowler, very quick”) and a mechanic, would be a worried man. It wasn’t easy being a boy at Bhendi. Several youth were from one gang or another, Kambli says, and his friends too were beginning their dalliance with the underworld elements. Ganpat grew restless, and strict. “He would at times beat me, worried that I would join my friends, and if it wasn’t for cricket, I surely would have joined them.” Ganpat yanked the family to Kanjurmarg, looking for some peace.
Years later, that experience would come in handy when Kambli portrayed a mechanic, and a friend with underworld gangsters in a movie Annarth. A movie where he danced, used mumbaiya slang, did comedy with Johhny Lever, and where he nearly died, while playing a dead body. He remembers the early morning shoot at Vashi where his character was to get killed. For the scene, they had to use a crane to fish out his dead body.
“I had to get on to the crane and lay there as a dead body. The crane took me deep into the water. And when the crane was coming up, my leg got stuck in the crane. I was still underwater. I somehow signalled to them, and they saw me and picked me up. I completed that shot with my injured toe. Very dangerous because nobody was around. Irony is, I almost got killed while playing a dead-body.”
Irony has tailed him through his life. His two most personal moments had come publicly, and castigated him in bad light. The infamous crying after ’96 World Cup semi-final, and a lie-detector moment on a TV show where he said Sachin Tendulkar could have helped him more. His two most vulnerable moments – cry for help of sorts – had left him with much infamy. Irony was dancing on his life stage.
He remembers both incidents with a perplexed memory. First that night from hell at Eden Gardens, Kolkata. “If someone in your family expires, would you cry there, or you fly to Mumbai first and cry. I am an emotional man, and I cried – so what? Winning World Cup was my dream too – I had played well in that tournament, second-highest scorer after Sachin, and the way it ended … I just broke down. People said it was crocodile tears. Kya crocodile tears yaar – We are human, emotional. If you see in 2007 World Cup in West Indies also, entire team was crying (after they crashed out of the tournament).”
Still, this is Kambli, and even through the emotionally painful recounting, humour seeps through. He cues up the scene from the hotel room that haunting Kolkata night. His room-partner Venkatapathy Raju and he had just sat down with some beers to recover from the hellish day. “I was crying in the room. ‘Kya ho gaya, ab chod na,’ he said. The phone rang. Continuously for 25 minutes. Fans are calling and crying with me. Raju was sitting with his drink and saying, ‘Kiska phone hai? Tu ro raha hai? Rona bandh kar.’ I said, ‘Yeh log aur rula rahe hai.’ I told the operator put me on DND. But still they managed. Roya, shant hua, then phone-call, wapas rona chalu. Raju had enough.” Laughter.
The other television incident came years after retirement, and highlighted how hyphenated his name was with Tendulkar. He was Bharat to Tendulkar’s Ram. As if he couldn’t have an independent existence. That TV show ended up with a lot of negativity. “All I said was he could have helped me more as a brother, a friend. I didn’t mean anything else with that. People misinterpreted it. Even the term self-destruct was in the question – I hadn’t said that. I was just allowed to say yes or no. But it caused a lot of hungama.”
Not everything in memory is tainted, luckily. A scene from childhood with his mother and trips to Gateway of India as a kid, where he would gape at imposing structure of Taj hotel. “My mumma, daaada and my brothers would just look at Taj and say, ‘kitna bada hai’. When I got the Mafatlal Cricketer award, that’s the time I invited my parents and my brothers and we had dinner. And I said, ‘Dad look.’ My mom was very happy. She said, ‘Tula aattavtha?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ When we were young I would say ‘Gateway kitne baar dekha hai, woh dekho Taj’. But while we were having dinner I said, ‘Woh dekho Gateway’.”
The death of his mother, he realises now, was an emotional setback he couldn’t quite recover from. The mind went to Sadanand Vishwanath, another shooting star of Indian cricket, who survived his father’s suicide but couldn’t emotionally handle his mother’s death during his last series as India player. Indian cricket in the 90’s is a strange beast. In the 80’s, it handled the brazenness of Ravi Shastri, who would openly talk about partying, with relative maturity. It even threw up images of Srikkanth smoking in the Lord’s pavilion in celebration. The financial market was liberalised in the 90’s but somehow, the cricket fields turned more conservative. Kambli couldn’t understand it, then or now.
“All I heard from selectors was indiscipline indiscipline indiscipline. What crime did I do? Did I drink and come for any game? Did I miss any training because of it? I made nine comebacks! Never got a consistent run. I wish I could have played overseas tours. I have not played any series in England, South Africa, Australia, or even Zimbabwe. I just played one Test in New Zealand. How will I get experience? They said I am good at spinners – when I got back to back double, was I playing spinners? And suddenly after one flop series against West Indies in ’94, I was termed ODI player. Haven’t so many players bounced back after one bad series?”
Fans from that generation would remember that West Indies series, when Kenneth Benjamin, in many ways, ended Kambli’s Test career with bouncers. The famous high back-lift, that was inspired by Chris Broad, would quickly change to a more grounded stance but the recall didn’t come. Kambli found redemption of sorts, in his own mind, when he went to play domestic cricket in South Africa on bouncy tracks.
“Everyone bounced at me. I remember Allan Donald’s first ball at me – a bouncer and he stood there and stared. Next ball was fuller, and I hit a straight drive. I walked up to him, tapping my bat, and said, ‘Long time, no see Donald!’.” Impish schoolboyish laughter fills the air. “I faced Ntini, Donald and the rest at Boland, where I played, and I was so happy that I scored runs in those conditions.” Nostalgia can offer relief from psychological wounds but residues always hover. “I just wish I got more chances in Tests.”
However, with Kambli, it’s not the self-serving accounts that bleed through his memory. Asked for memorable moments from his career, he serves up this hilarious incident from a Sharjah game against Pakistan when Aquib Javed took a hattrick.
Even as Aquib starts his run-up that over, Kambli hit the toilet in the dressing room after telling Kapil Dev. “I was batting at No 5 or 6. Paaji told me, ‘don’t worry, go go. I went to toilet and heard the loud roar. The physio yells out that Ravi has got out. Then Azzu gets out. Then the hat-trick – Sachin too is gone. Arre hat-trick ho gaya, chal nikal!
“I washed my arse! Changed in dressing room, and stumbled out.” The pads weren’t tied up properly; there was no time and the Pakistanis were waiting. “Bh******d kaaliya! Kidhar g***d m***a raha tha tu?!” And I am thinking, “oh my goodness, they are abusing me, and I am padding up there in the middle, adjusting my gear! I had to face that next ball but was soon run out later after misunderstanding with Sanjay Manjrekar.” He hit to midwicket and as soon as Kambli set off, he knew he won’t make it. “I just kept running straight to the toilet! Never mind that abuse, Pakistanis actually liked me. Good memories.”
More happy moments come through. Like how he took up earrings after Kapil. “Kapil Dev was the first Indian to try it…some Sadhu or guru of his recommended it to him. He tried it in Australia but the first day he had it on, he slipped and fell…and said mujhe nahi chahiye…..So then I took over and said ok I’ll try earrings….and scored that 224 with earrings on. Earrings pehen key England ko loot liya!”
Or the first time he was asked to open in Sharjah against Pakistan by the manager Ashok Mankad. “It was fun when he told me to open. Apparently a few teammates shied away, then who’ll open. He came up to me and said, “Tumhi opening karte? Tumhi tambhte, mee saangte.” Imran was just coming and rolling his arm over. Ravi Shastri came up to me and said, “Donald, go after him.” I said, “What?” I then started stepping out and all to Imran. Ravi calls me Donald. Dessie was given my Sunil Gavaskar sir. He said with the headband I used to look like Desmond Haynes. Never found out why Donald.” Shastri explains that it was because of his run-scoring feats that he had named him after Donald Bradman.
Or the time when Kambli and Tendulkar would use Ajit Wadekar to save up money. “Our food and drinks were with him, and he used to sign, and then while checking out he would get shocked.” Or how he became friends with Shane Warne after he hit four sixes in an over. “We would go out drinking.”
The years have rolled on and he has done this and that: a movie, a Marathi rap number, and is now awaiting the release of a Hindi song he has done. He tried politics too. “It was a big constituency. Vikhroli, Kanjurmarg, Bhandup. 75,000 votes, or something. One month, I did door-to-door campaigning. They used to take photos and autographs lekin vote bahut kam de diya!”
Luckily, he has a house now in Bandra after 10 years of living on rent. With help from the former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, and his savings that went into interior design, he now at last owns an apartment. “Earlier, money was a big issue for us. All my hard-earned money from whatever cricket I played.”
Not that life is any easier, these days. His wife, he says, is considering a return to modelling world. Kambli is seriously thinking about cricket coaching: “If an IPL team or Ranji team wants me, I am ready for the job. I am willing, and feel I can understand and help today’s youngsters.”
His greatest concern is the well-being of his children. And the fear that his health should hold up so that he can help them grow. It’s been almost a year, he says, since he had his last drink. In 2013, a year after he had done angioplasty for two blocked arteries, he suffered an attack while driving. With help from two cops, who cleared traffic and took him to hospital in time, he survived.
“It was a miracle. Life has been tough. Every day is a challenge to me. I have to think about my family’s future. Every day has been a struggle but she has stood by me. They are totally dependent on me. So my only fear is my health. Nothing else. I want to grow old with my children. I have done acting, singing, dancing, reality shows. Everything. Now, all I want is a good life for my children.”