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April 28, 2014

'I don't think I was as gifted as people thought I was'

Interview by Subash Jayaraman
'I don't think I was as gifted as people thought I was'

Subash Jayaraman: You come from a cricketing family. Your great-uncle played for India. You are one of the handful of cricketers in India whose father also played Test cricket, and he was considered one of the best batsmen India has ever produced. Growing up in that shadow, what was that pressure like?

Sanjay Manjrekar: In my case, I had this strong misconception that I would actually become a Test cricketer when I grew up. That is what I thought normally happens to young players. That is the kind of belief I had as a kid. That really helped, because I was focused. I knew very early in my life what I wanted to be. I played with an ambition.

SJ: Was following in your father's footsteps a natural choice for you?

SM: Yes. I lived in an area near Shivaji Park, Dadar [in Mumbai]. During that time cricket was the only sport. There were so many heroes from that area - Sunil Gavaskar, Subash Gupte, Vijay Manjrekar, Ajit Wadekar. There was a strong cricketing culture and a lot of cricket played even in the gully, in the building compound, with the soft ball, was high-quality cricket.

I see that with my son. He had a little bit of interest in cricket. But I thought he was slightly burdened by the fact that I was an international player, and my father was almost an Indian batting great. He chose not to go for it seriously because he thought he was never going to be as good as us. Time would have told if he would have eventually become that good, but he didn't want to take that kind of ambition or a dream. Whereas I had that as my sole dream.

SJ: Cricket was a sport back then. Now it is a business. Would you still make that choice of becoming an Indian cricketer, if you were growing up now?

SM: Absolutely. Because there is more motivation to take it up now. Nobody in our time was growing up to be a 50-over player. If you didn't play international cricket, life was hard for a first-class cricketer, because there was no money.

SJ: There is this tradition of Mumbai's school of batsmanship. If you are a much-touted batsman from Mumbai, you are expected to have a certain approach to your batting, and you are expected to deliver right away. Was there any added pressure when you started playing for Mumbai and India?

SM: Just coming back to the father-son thing, to give you an example: There was an open selection trial for Under-15 or U-19 cricket. I would immediately gain attention because the selectors would know my father. That was the advantage I got. But then, once I started exhibiting whatever skills and abilities I had, the comparison would come. Often it would go like, "He is not as good as his father."

Looking back, there are more advantages than disadvantages. One thing about the Mumbai school of batsmanship was that all these stalwarts were always hanging around, watching the young talent. They always looked for good technique in batsmen and big appetite for runs. They were never pleased if you got out for 140 when you could get a double-hundred. That is something that was drilled into us: once you are in, you have to get a big score. The other thing was that you had to be good against fast bowlers. Mumbai's batting stalwarts always prided themselves on this fact, and on getting the tough runs when it mattered the most.

SJ: When you made your India debut, it was already said that you were to fill the shoes of Sunil Gavaskar. What were your own expectations?

SM: At that time, there was a huge gap between first-class cricket and international cricket. Even if you had the runs and people thought you were extraordinary as a first-class batsman, there was still some doubt as to whether you would be able to raise your game to the requirement of an international bowling attack.

One emotion that takes over all other emotions is just the feeling of pride - that now on even if I got two ducks in two innings, nobody can take away from me that I am a Test cricketer.

SJ: In the second innings you had to retire hurt because you got injured by a delivery from Winston Benjamin and you missed nearly a year and a half of cricket for India.

SM: Actually, before I got hit, I batted for about an hour against a good bowling attack on a pitch that had a bit of pace and bounce. It was an exceptional Indian pitch at Kotla. There were scores of 100 and 70 in the first innings of the Test. Just the way that I was able to survive that one hour gave me tremendous confidence. When I got hit, it wasn't a case of me taking my eyes off the ball, or that I had a problem with the short ball. It was just about that one ball taking off and I was a little slow to react and the ball hit my left eye. But I don't think it put a doubt in me that I was not equipped to play fast bowling.

SJ: When you made your return to the Indian team in 1989 in West Indies and in Pakistan, you had a great run in terms of the quality of runs you made and the amount of runs you made in the season. Beyond that, would it be accurate to say that your India career remained a tale of potential that was unrealised?

SM: There are two things to it. There is no doubt that I could have done a lot better, could have played a lot more Test matches. In fact, I am actually very disappointed with the way my Test career finished off - just 37 Tests. I was good enough to play maybe 50-60. I was quite happy with the way my ODI career shaped up. There were occasions where I was the Man of the Series. I thought I was never cut out to play one-day cricket. But yes, in Tests.

My weakness was perhaps recovering from failures. That was my problem. I don't think I was good at bouncing back from failures. Once I had a good run, I was very good. Also, the fact that I had a great start, like I had in West Indies and Pakistan, then people tend to expect a lot more.

Now if Sanjay Manjrekar the analyst watches Sanjay Manjrekar the cricketer at the age of 21-22, I don't think I was as gifted as people thought I was. I had good technique and good temperament and all that, but the first time that I saw someone like Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid, I thought they were far more talented than I was. [Sachin] Tendulkar was obviously in a different league.

SJ: Did that put any additional pressure on you?

SM: I think my game after 1992-93 steadily declined. There was an injury issue in 1996 where I missed out and Ganguly and Dravid had an excellent start to their Test career. I knew they were going to be there for a while. There was still a spot left in the line-up for me to hang on to. But my game was steadily declining. The worst thing that can happen to a cricketer if he is not playing or is in and out of the team is, you can get spaced out.

I thought VVS Laxman did a terrific job just as a Test player without the back-up of 50-over cricket. I realise how difficult it is to just be a Test player and come after gaps of two-three months and have the same kind of performances. I was waiting for the second wind to come. It never came, so the best thing was to leave the scene and be young at some other profession.

"When it comes to Tendulkar, I was never in awe in the way the fans and a lot of people are. It was a clinical way of looking at Tendulkar. There were occasions when he disappointed me with what he was doing on the field. Those were observations made by a guy who knew his subject really well"

SJ: I want to talk about you being a harsh judge of your own batting. You had a century against West Indies and two against Pakistan, but then you had one more Test century against Zimbabwe. You still had reasonable scores, but where did that century-making habit go away?

SM: I think insecurity and being too eager and anxious. I remember that I made a comeback against West Indies at No. 6 in 1994-95 at Wankhede. India were in trouble, four wickets down. I think I got fifties on both occasions in that match. That was a match-saving, good, valuable contribution. But most times I would have gone on to get a hundred. I got a fifty and there was a sense of relief, because I was struggling for runs. I felt that I got a base score to give myself a few Test matches. Maybe there was a sense of relief that got me to play a shot that I shouldn't have. All those things come into play. And finally, the mind really dictates everything that you do out there. The reason I didn't get big scores was purely because of all these insecurities.

SJ: You were often charged with being overly focused on achieving technical perfection at the cost of other aspects of your batting. You accepted that as well. Avi Singh from New Zealand wants to know: what advice would you have for any young batsmen on how to strive for improvement without the need for perfection becoming an all-encompassing objective?

SM: When I analyse my own batting now, I could actually do that. After I quit, in a year's time I knew exactly what had gone right and what had gone wrong with my career.

By nature I am a very self-critical person. It has its advantages. You never take your skills for granted, you get rid of most of your weaknesses, because that is what you are focusing on. When you are playing well, all that helps, you make the most of what you have. When the failures come, if you keep thinking of your failures, you miss out on some of your strengths. The real essence of batting is to score runs. I think a good captain or a senior player or a good coach or a mental conditioning coach can come to help. Cricket was different in our times. Players had to fend for themselves on all these fronts. So, many of them did a very good job analysing their weaknesses.

SJ: I have heard Rahul Dravid talk about his batting. This is like an echo of the same thing. But he went on to become one of the all-time great Test cricketers. Was it just the fact that there was someone along with him helping him along?

SM: I think the individual primarily is responsible for his success. You get some good advice at the right time. But when a guy bounces back from failure, the real credit should be going to him. So Rahul deserves all the credit for what he has achieved. In fact, a couple of years after my retirement, I was worried for Rahul because I could see that he was a guy who was just like me - very studious, intense, and would focus on one shot that he played wrongly and got out on 150. He would still focus on a couple of shots that he played wrongly.

But he didn't cross that line of becoming over-studious. Where I think he was different from me was that he knew his limitations very early. He never went away from his core strength, which was about defence, tremendous mental reserve. Even after failures he was willing to hang in there. Having crossed the score of 50 or 60 like I did, he would have gone on to get two hundreds in that match.

SJ: What helped you make the transition from being a player to commentator?

SM: I am not saying I am very good at it, but the job came very easily to me just because it was a natural extension of my personality. When I was playing cricket I watched a lot of stuff going on when I was in the nets, for example. When I had finished batting, I would watch the bowlers bowl, other batsmen bat. I was very interested in others as well. Tendulkar, I used to watch him really focus on his own batting. Once he finished his batting, he would start bowling and start taking catches. He didn't spend too much time watching or analysing others, which is one of the reasons he was so great. I was the exact opposite.

SJ: Every commentator has a distinct style. I am assuming you have defined your own voice as well, your space. What was that process like?

SM: No, I was just myself. When it started, I used to just react to what I saw on the field. That was it.

SJ: Here is a question from Clayton Murzello, the sports editor of Mid-Day: Do you understand the role and pressures on commentators and writers better now than you did in your playing days?

SM: Yes. There was more free-spirited commentary in the early days. I don't think it has changed only in India. All over the world, commentators are a little more careful about what they say. Initially it was almost like the kind of chat you would have in a private room at a cricket match, where you are openly critical of players and the banter used to be free. There wasn't that much discipline.

Overall, when you look at international commentary, commentators have grown to realise that it is a much more responsible job than you think. They realise that they have a big platform and they have to be really careful about what they say. Cricket is a sport where the action comes in spurts, and there is a lot of idle time, where the only connection with the match is through the voice of the commentator. His voice becomes very important. Commentators have realised that.

SJ: In 1981 after England won the Ashes, Bob Willis had a go at the media, the people that doubted him, and the players, but then, once he transitioned to be a media person himself, he was doing the things that he railed against. When you were playing, the people who covered you may have said not very pleasant things about your career or batting, your failures. But when you put on the hat of the pundit, do you think, "I see why they were critical of me", or why you should be critical of someone else?

SM: When I was a player, I read some articles written about me on the West Indies tour. I would say, "Was I that good?" Because they were such flowery articles praising me to the skies. I realised very early that there is always exaggeration when it comes to covering a performance, especially from the people who haven't played the game at the highest level.

Obviously when you fail, the reaction on that front is always an over-reaction. Either they were exaggerating or being too complimentary. Of course, when you are failing it is the other extreme. So I didn't have an issue with the media. I could understand the job they were doing. My way of handling them was to be indifferent.

SJ: I received a bunch of questions when I announced on social media that you were going to be on the show. These questions, I'm only presuming that they were sent in jokingly: "Why does Sanjay not like Sachin?" I am assuming they are referring to various things you may have said as a pundit. That is your job, to give your opinions on cricketing matters, no matter who the player is. When you do, you sometimes get this emotional backlash. How do you learn to deal with these?

SM: That is never easy. Harsha Bhogle once said that Sachin Tendulkar is an irrational topic in Indian cricket. I can understand that.

The big difference with me and the others when it comes to Tendulkar is that I saw him as a 14-year-old. I saw him grow into a cricketer. I was never in awe in the way the fans and a lot of people are. I was completely bowled over by the talent, something that I saw very early, but it was always a more clinical way of looking at Tendulkar.

There were occasions when he disappointed me with what he was doing on the field. Those were the kind of observations that I made. Those were observations made by a guy who knew his subject really well. Very often when I have written something about Tendulkar that is not complimentary, I have always been surprised by the backlash, because I would always think that I was making an observation about a player and similar observations would have been made about a lot of other players. But with Tendulkar it is a little bit different.

SJ: There is another question on commentary and this comes from Shoaib Naveed. It is about the effect of the commentary team around you, and how it dictates the quality of the commentary. Do you feed off your colleagues in the box? Shoaib feels that you are brilliant in the Sky box, and perhaps slightly fluctuating when with Star, and not so well with Ten Sports.

SM: There are certain commentators you love working with. You get into good areas of cricketing talk and the content gets richer. If you have a fellow commentator who is on the same page, the overall quality of the content gets richer, when you have two people digging deeper into some cricketing aspect. But I don't think the [broadcasting] company makes that much of a difference for me. Fellow commentators, yes. Sometimes you feel the need to raise your game when there is someone like Michael Holding next to you. When he sits next to me, immediately I realise here is a very intelligent cricketing person sitting here. It just shakes you a bit out of your comfort zone and gets you to raise your game even further. I never lose sight of the fact that people actually turn on the television to watch cricket and not to listen to us. I never lose sight of the fact that we are not that important to the coverage.

SJ: Some of the players that you played with and against are also fellow commentators. Some of them have become caricatures of themselves - performers in their own way. For example, Navjot Singh Sidhu or Danny Morrison or Ravi Shastri. Is there an incentive towards being that way? If so, how does one resist that?

SM: It is a personal choice. What typically happens is that when you start off your career as a commentator, you get some feedback from your producer and you see how fans react to you when they see you in daily life. They say that they enjoy this part of your commentary, something like that. So the commentator gets a sense of what people like about their commentary. Then it is up to you how much you want to invest in that element of your commentary. The obvious advantage is that the producer is happy with you bringing in that element of the commentary. You are assured of another offer the next time. You work on that and keep the producer happy.

The one thing that I have realised is that however good you are, the one thing that never helps the commentator is over-exposure. You could be the best commentator in the world, but if the fans hear you all the time, you start to get on their nerves. That cannot be helped.

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Posted by Nampally on (May 5, 2014, 13:42 GMT)

I watched Vijay Manjrekar batting for India many times. I remember his innings of 133 in Leeds Test match as one of the most memorable one. That was his first test in England too. Vijay was the best player of the fast bowling & his innings at Headingly came against Fiery Trueman, Bedser & Laker- all great bowlers. Vijay's favourite shot was his superbly timed cover Drives & cuts. I never had the pleasure of watching Sanjay Manjrekar during his playing days. I only hear Sanjay as commentator & also read his columns in Cricinfo. But it is nice to see his record nearly as good as his Dad's. It is never easy to live up to the expectations of being the Chip of an old Block. But judging from his averages, Sanjay appeared to be nearly as good as his Dad- who I greatly admired as superb batsman. But Sanjay shone brighter in his retired life as a journalist & a Commentator, which Vijay did not have a chance because of his premature death. Well played in your life Sanjay- which is like Cricket!

Posted by   on (May 4, 2014, 10:52 GMT)

Sanjay was r8 on criticizing Sachin to be elephant in the dressing room .....but that was true only for tests.......even at that time he was enjoying good ODI form & selectors didn't drop him considering his ODI form.

His peers like Ganguly & others were shown the door when faced with poor form but not him, bcz those guys faced prolonged poor form in all formats

Sachin never had a prolonged bad ODI form & due to consistent good ODI form he became best ODI cricketer of all time.

In tests he had his ups 7 downs & stands only among top 15 best test players of all time

Sanjay himself was an above avg test player & a nothing ODI player. But Test is a dying format & doesn't make u a super hero. People seek super heros in ODI bcz it has a World Cup

Posted by   on (May 4, 2014, 10:48 GMT)

Sanjay was r8 on criticizing Sachin to be elephant in the dressing room .....but that was true only for tests.......even at that time he was enjoying good ODI form & selectors didn't drop him considering his ODI form.

His peers like Ganguly & others were shown the door when faced with poor form but not him, bcz those guys faced prolonged poor form in all formats

Sachin never had a prolonged bad ODI form & due to consistent good ODI form he became best ODI cricketer of all time.

In tests he had his ups 7 downs & stands only among top 15 best test players of all time. Mayebe Kallis & Ponting just above him

Posted by   on (May 1, 2014, 14:07 GMT)

No one ever thought that he was a great player. Where did he get this idea, that people thought so, to deny that he wasn't that great! Smacks a bit of arrogance.

Posted by ooper_cut on (May 1, 2014, 11:49 GMT)

As always, very honest and forthright. I admired your play Sanjay and now admire your simplicity. Wayyy ahead of the likes of Shastri and Gavaskar.

Posted by   on (May 1, 2014, 0:10 GMT)

Such simplicity and honesty was refreshing to hear.

Posted by gandabhai on (April 30, 2014, 21:57 GMT)

I expected SRT to score more runs/hundreds and break more records than he finally did. But, and a very big BUT. Which other sportsperson in history has had to deal with the weight of EXPECTATIONS like he did throughout his carear. Just put an ounce of that scary stuff on your back for just 15 minutes and you will see how difficult it is to deal with. No disrespect to the Bradmens, Lara's of this world as they were 'top of the table too' no doubt about it . But, they didn't have to deal with the same level of STRESS that SRT was obliged to deal with.Year after Year we see top football players missing penalties in a penalty shootout . WHY, Because of the PRESSURE.Does that not tell you something about how wonderfully well SRT did ?

Posted by McGorium on (April 30, 2014, 17:41 GMT)

@Chris Silva: "Delusions of grandeur cannot make one a better player than one was." I don't know; it never stopped KP. More to the point, Manjrekar has *never* stated he was ever a great. The *headline* of this article quotes him saying that he never was as good as people claimed he was. It's pretty hard to miss a headline in bold, 24pt font size. Makes me wonder if you even read this article. @MBMadhav: He's not my favourite commentator, but I'd take him over the likes of Gavaskar, Shastri, Sidhu, Ramiz Raja, etc. any time of the day. He comes across as being independent and reflective, which amounts to a lot in my book. Gavaskar and Shastri today are of the BCCI. I can't listen to them without thinking that they're toeing the party line for everything.

Posted by MBMadhav on (April 30, 2014, 14:25 GMT)

As the mainstay in Indian batting in the late 80's, with a pleasing stance and a minimalist approach, his batting will be remembered for a good technique. He remains another one who could have gone on for bigger things.

As a commentator and columnist today, he is perhaps overly rational. The flat conversational style too often doesn't help. I thought he was unreasonable about Rahul's focus and batting style for a fair length of time. And with a pontiff-like stance that he takes in the box, he could be truly out of place in the celebratory mode of current day cricket-centric events like IPL.

But if it is test cricket, his reflection on the nuances does please the puritans.

Posted by   on (April 30, 2014, 12:04 GMT)

He was a reasonable player, nothing spectacular or gifted about him. There were a dozen other players who were around during his period.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Subash Jayaraman
Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch

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