The idol who went too soon
I was all of nine when Raman Lamba bagged his Man of the Series award against Australia in India. And it was his debut international series. At that age, playing for the country, possessing the India jersey, was bigger than the biggest dream I'd ever dreamed - perhaps a little too spectacular to come true.
The sight of Raman holding the trophy aloft wasn't quite etched in my mind - not as much as the sight of him dancing down the track to the world's most ferocious bowler, Craig McDermott (a kid's world consists of things and people he can see) and smashing him for a six over point. It was Raman Lamba the feisty, gritty cricketer who was more important to me than Raman Lamba the India cricketer.
So audacious and extravagant was the shot that the thought of replicating it never once crossed my mind. And so it's probably a little odd when I confess that Raman Lamba, though I never emulated him, has remained my favourite cricketer. Such was his appeal that I ended up joining the club he played for in Delhi - Sonnet. As much as I wanted to learn the game and realise my dream of playing for India, signing up with the club was also equally about getting an opportunity to see him in flesh and blood.
The opportunity came soon and left me awestruck. Raman had long hair, walked with a swagger, and batted to dominate the bowlers. Sonnet used to practice on jute matting in those days, which produced uneven bounce regularly, and so the sight of a batsman playing quality fast bowlers (who were always missing the popping crease by a foot or so) with utter disdain was something to behold.
His fast bat-swing, lightning-quick footwork to get to the pitch of the delivery, the flair with which he flayed the ball, his bottom-hand-dominated grip on the bat (so much so that he would trim the shoulders of the bat because the wood dug into his bottom hand), and penchant to go over the top at the first opportunity wasn't the sort of stuff you needed to learn if you wanted to be an opener, or were just starting to learn how to hold the bat properly. Raman was one of those you'd admire silently, while knowing deep within that even attempting to imitate his style would be suicidal.
I didn't have many interactions with him after his brief stints at the club, because he was either busy playing for India, Delhi or North Zone, or playing professional cricket in Ireland and England. His exploits on the field, especially in first-class cricket, passed into cricket folklore. In those days an Indian first-class cricketer was judged by what the Mumbai players thought of him. We were told that Mumbai feared Raman's presence in the opposition more than they did anyone else's.
There was one time when he scored a triple-hundred in a Duleep Trophy game and was so devastated after getting out that he smashed a glass pane in the dressing room. Years later, though I couldn't quite gather up the courage to ask him about that incident, I did ask about how he reacted to getting a triple-century. Unbelievable as it might sound, he was gutted to have missed the opportunity to score a quadruple-century, which he thought would have made a huge difference to his career. I grew up listening to these stories of his insatiable hunger for runs, and the ruthlessness with which he analysed his game, often undermining his achievements in the process.
After spending a few years away, playing professional cricket, Raman came back to the game in India. He had aged many years since when I first saw him, but his enthusiasm and his attitude hadn't changed one bit. By then I was cutting my teeth on serious cricket and he needed no persuasion to take me under his wing. He assumed the role of mentor and became the hardest taskmaster I had ever had. Like all good tutors, he was not only strict with his wards but also equally ruthless with himself. If he told us to run for 5km, he'd be there with us at the finish. In fact, he would ensure he was the first to finish, for coming second wasn't his style. Even though he was a bit inflexible - it was always his way or the highway - and we often cursed him under our breath, I still did whatever he asked me to do. It made me a better sportsperson.
The fact that I was vying for his place in the Delhi Ranji side could potentially have given him reason to be a little wary of me, to abandon me, or at least leave me to my own devices. But what he did instead didn't just display his magnanimity but also his sportsmanship.
He would always single me out for various tasks and push me to get better. He would tell bowlers in the Ranji Trophy nets to pepper me with bouncers. And if I had any misgivings about his abilities, he would demonstrate how to deal with chin music, and everything else a bowler could dish out, both in matches and in the nets. I distinctly remember him sweeping a fast bowler for four over the head of the fielder at square leg in a Ranji one-day match. He knew how to walk the talk. If he wanted a certain amount of competitiveness from us, he was always the first to display it.
Then came the time for my Ranji debut, a game in which the captain requested Raman to sit out to make room for me. While it was against his principles to drop out when he was not injured, he understood the importance of allowing a youngster his chances. He cheered the loudest when I scored a hundred on debut, and he was the first to scold me when I threw my wicket away on 150; he couldn't digest that I had messed up a golden opportunity to score a double-century on debut. His motto in life was that if better was possible, you should go for it.
Then there was another Ranji one-day match, against Punjab in Patiala, when after inspecting the pitch the day before the match, he announced that since the pitch was full of runs, he needed to score 125. He went on to unleash a calculated assault on a decent Punjab attack, and reached the target he had set for himself the day before. It was also his highest List-A score.
Later that year we were playing a Ranji game in Tamil Nadu (he was in Bangladesh playing league cricket), when we heard the shocking news of his death. For my generation of Delhi cricketers, it was a huge loss: we lost our mentor and our role model.
Even if I've tried to follow his work ethic ever since, I can say without an ounce of doubt that I, and other young cricketers in Delhi, would have ended up as far better cricketers had he been with us for longer.