August 2, 2002

Can Agarkar fulfill his early promise?

Will the unbeaten century at Lord's be the turning point in Ajit Agarkar's career? Not only Agarkar himself, but also the entire country will be wishing just that. For while Agarkar needed that knock to consolidate his place in the Test team ­ no one doubted his immense capabilities as a limited-overs cricketer ­ what India has required for a long time now is a genuine all-rounder. The lack of one has caused an imbalance in the side, and how one wishes that Agarkar is the answer to our prayers.

Ajit Agarkar
© CricInfo
When Agarkar burst upon the scene in the late '90s, he was reckoned by some in Indian cricket to be potentially the most exciting player since Kapil Dev. The lad had loads of talent, and it remained to be seen whether he had the temperament for the big occasion.

But over the years, Agarkar remained the prime example of the maxim that talent alone is not enough. While he remained an effective enough performer in one day cricket, he was in and out of the Test side, unable to cement his place despite his obvious skills - nippy bowling that could be disconcerting for the best of batsmen and aggressive batting that could lay any bowling low.

While his bowling fulfilled, at least to some extent, the early promise ­ he did head the averages in the disastrous series in Australia in 1999-2000 ­ his batting became something of a joke, particularly after he got five ducks in a row in the same rubber. There was also a pair in his next Test against Australia at Mumbai the following season, and the critics by now were unsparing in their derisive comments, comparing his batting to BS Chandrasekhar's and reasoning after numerous opportunities, his Test career must be near its end.

By this time, talk about Agarkar being the country's next all-rounder had also ceased. The Indian Test team had been without an all-rounder since Manoj Prabhakar had been axed after an indifferent World Cup in 1996. Since then, Sunil Joshi had shown some qualities as emerging as a competent utility cricketer, if not an all-rounder, and early in the 21st century, it seemed that Agarkar could at best be just another such utility player.

There is of course a marked difference between a genuine all-rounder and a general utility player. An all-rounder is termed as one who can hold his place in the side solely on the strength of his batting or his bowling. He is the kind who can win matches virtually on his own, can smite a hundred or take 10 wickets in a match ­ or better still, do both in the same Test like some of the greatest names in the game have done. A utility player, on the other hand, is one who scores 30 or 40 runs and takes two or three wickets. Once in a way, he steps on the bigger stage with a near-hundred or a five-wicket haul.

Indian cricket has had the good fortune of producing all-rounders of the calibre of Lala Amarnath, Vinoo Mankad, Dattu Phadkar, Gulabrai Ramchand, Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde (till a shoulder injury caused him to give up bowling his leg-spinners), Salim Durrani, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and Manoj Prabhakar. These players all have at least one Test hundred and - except in the cases of Ramchand and Borde - more than one five-wicket haul.

But it is not possible for everyone to be genuine all-rounders, and again it has been Indian cricket's fortune to have produced a number of utility players who have served the country admirably. Players like Amar Singh, Rusi Surti, Abid Ali, Madan Lal, Karsan Ghavri and Roger Binny would fall into this category. Not one of them scored a hundred, and all finished with averages in their early or mid-20s with the bat and in the 30s or early 40s with the ball. Barring Ghavri, none of them took over 100 wickets in Tests. After Binny played his last Test in 1987, Arshad Ayub flickered brightly for a brief while, but he faded away too soon, and since then only Joshi can be termed as a utility player.

Ajit Agarkar
© CricInfo
By getting a hundred at Lord's the other day, Agarkar would seem to have leapfrogged the utility level and proceeded straight to all-rounder status. Going into the Test, his batting average was 7.81 with a tally of 125 runs from 11 games and a highest score of 41 not out. His bowling average was 41.84 from a tally of 26 wickets with a best bowling of three for 43. As I said, his bowling is quite nippy, and the pace and bounce he generates belies a bowler of his wiry frame. But even here, Agarkar is often wayward in length and direction, a weak spot in his bowling armoury that was spotted even at Lord's.

But the main problem concerned his batting. Now having broken away from those shackles, the Shivaji Park product has it in him to live up to his early promise and emerge as the all-rounder the country has been praying for. He certainly is a fiercely competitive and potentially even exciting cricketer. In addition to all the laurels he has garnered in limited0overs cricket - the quickest bowler to get 50 wickets (surpassing Dennis Lillee), the fastest half century (off just 21 balls) by an Indian, surpassing Kapil Dev's record ­ there is little doubt that he has the talent to succeed in the longer version of the game too. Sometimes just one performance can be a major turning point for a cricketer. Will the hundred at Lord's be the watershed in Agarkar's career?