December 3, 1999

The Sidhu I will remember

He was soft spoken and unassuming by nature. Speaking impeccable English in low tones, he was always respectful to the elderly and easily approachable to anyone else. But with a bat in hand and given the honour of playing for the country, Navjot Singh Sidhu was a transformed man. He was the epitome of courage as he negotiated with great success the fastest bowlers of his day. And they answered to the name of Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Walsh, Ambrose, Patterson, McDermott, Hadlee, Imran, Akram et al.

As far as spin bowling was concerned, Sidhu was the best player of the slow bowlers. From the time he mauled the spinners in the 1987 Reliance Cup by jumping out like a tiger on a hapless prey and lofting them with copy book hits, complete with the perfect follow through to long off and long on, till the time he meted out the same treatment to Warne during the 1998 series against Australia, Sidhu remained a peerless player of spin bowling. At Chennai in the first Test of the series, the average fan, blinded by Sachin Tendulkar's brilliance, credited him with destroying Warne. But the expert eye realised that it was actually Sidhu who had softened Warne for Tendulkar to turn the heat on him. When Warne came on, one could see Sidhu relishing the challenge of taking him on. When he hit him for a couple of sixes, he clenched his fist in determination. That gesture became a Sidhu trademark.

It was as a comparatively unknown 20-year-old that Sidhu made his Test debut against West Indies at Ahmedabad 16 years ago. He had earned a place thanks to his century for North Zone against the visitors. Going in at No 3, Sidhu stayed happily in the background as Sunil Gavaskar went past Geoff Boycott's record Test aggregate. This was in keeping with the Sidhu image. Till the end, he always prefered not to be in the spotlight, but to perform his duties effectively but in an unobtrusive manner - like a good soldier in the army. In that first match he did not make many runs and only came back into the team for the final Test at Madras because the Indian team had suffered a debacle at Calcutta, leading to many changes. And with Gavaskar prefering to go in at No 4, Sidhu opened the innings for the first time. Again he did not make many runs and while the cynics were quick to dub him ``strokeless wonder'' others were able to spot the flawless technique, right temperament and the gutsy qualities that became his hallmark.

When he was recalled four years later for the Reliance Cup there were many who wondered whether it was a right choice. What was a ``strokeless wonder'' like Sidhu doing in ``instant'' cricket? But they were all struck by the transformation. His cleanly struck lofted hits were suddenly the talk of the competition, he rattled off five successive half centuries and the transition from ``strokeless wonder'' to ``sixer Sidhu'' was complete.

For the next decade he was more in than out of the Indian team, being one of the very few who did equally well in both Test cricket and the limited overs game. But he was never not because of any vagaries of form but due to injuries. His consistency was a shining factor and there was not one series where he failed. Half centuries were a matter of habit, but there were centuries too and even a double century in the West Indies in 1997. If spin bowlers brought out Sidhu's skill and expertise, fast bowlers brought out the guts in him. But none could dispute his concentration too and it seems somehow fitting that the highest score made by an Indian outside the country remains the 286 made by Sidhu against Jamaica in 1989.

In any long career there are bound to be unfortunate events even for a non controversial personality like Sidhu. But his departure midway through the Indian tour in 1996 clearly divided opinion in this country. There were those who blamed Azharuddin for the obviously serious misunderstanding. They argued that if a level headed person like Sidhu could take such a drastic action, then the captain should be held responsible. Of course there were those who said Sidhu should be censured for walking out of a tour, that he should never be selected again for India. Their argument was that whatever the misunderstanding, a soldier never leaves the army. Piqued, Sidhu said he was retiring from the game but he calmed down after the then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India IS Bindra had a talk with him.

The timing of his strokes - particularly the lofted drive - was never a problem for Sidhu. Similarly, the timing of his retirement has been perfect. His recent scores illustrated that at 36, age had finally caught up with the brave soldier. But unlike many old soldiers, Sidhu will never fade away. Memories of his batting deeds will continue to be with us. And sooner rather than later, one can see Sidhu back in some capacity to serve the cause of Indian cricket.