December 3, 1999

India's finest opener in the post Gavaskar era

Navjot Sidhu has been one of the enigmas of Indian cricket. He has not always done justice to his ability but his sheer grit and will power have seen him step into the breach following Gavaskar's retirement and become a source of strength at the top of the order. He first caught the eye of the selectors by making 122 for North Zone at Amritsar against the West Indians on their tour of India in '83-84. Given another shot at the tourists for the Board President's XI at Nagpur, he top scored with 58 in the Board's 1st innings. He was included for the next Test at Ahmedabad, but only because Dilip Vengsarkar was injured, thus leaving a vacancy in the middle order. Sidhu batted at No.3 and made 15 and 4 on a Motera wicket of devilishly uneven bounce.

He made a comeback, the first of many that the caprices of the selectors would inflict upon him, for the final Test at Madras following the dropping of Jimmy Amarnath (arguably the comeback man par excellence) for making one run in six innings. Opening the innings with Gaekwad after Sunil Gavaskar had decided to come in at No.4, he put on 54 with Sunny to resurrect the innings after a rampant Marshall had left India reeling at 0-2.

After spending the next three years in exile Sidhu made a huge splash at the 1987 World Cup where he revealed his alter ego. The tranformation from a grim, dour bat to a jaunty six hitter was stunning and Sidhu was to retain both elements of this split personality till his career ended. He missed the entire home series against the Windies that followed through injury. When he next got a Test call-up in the 1988-89 home series against New Zealand, he scored 116 in what was only his fourth Test innings.

Sidhu then topped the first class averages on India's subsequent visit to the Caribbean with 596 runs at 66.22, making almost half of that aggregate (286) in a single innings against Jamaica at the Sabina Park, Kingston. And he followed it up with a defiant 116 in his next innings - in a Test match on the same ground - against the four pronged pace attack of Ambrose, Bishop, Walsh and Marshall.

On the tour of Pakistan in 1989-90, Sidhu had three fifties in the Tests, including 85 at Karachi and 97 at Sialkot. But just when he looked to be at the pinnacle of his abilities there was disappointment ahead as he broke his knuckle in the 1st Test against the Kiwis at Christchurch and missed the rest of the tour. He had a poor English summer in 1990 and lost his place for Australia's Indian Summer of '91-92. However he was summoned as a reinforcement before the 3rd Test at Sydney and going straight into the Tests, he failed to adjust to the pace and bounce and found himself out in the cold again for the World Cup.

His next comeback was against England in 1993 and although he had a good Test series including a century at Madras, he will be better remembered for a savage assault on a hapless John Emburey in England's match with the Board President's XI in Lucknow. His 8 sixes off the off spinner over two innings, all deposited over long-on, destroyed Emburey's confidence so much that he asked not to be considered for the 1st Test. Indeed against Sri Lanka at Lucknow in 1993-94 Sidhu came within two strokes of equalling Wally Hammonds record for most 6's in a Test innings as he sent 8 balls over the ropes in the course of an innings of 124. This time it was Muttiah Muralitharan who bore the brunt.

There was more to come from Sidhu's broad blade in his more mellowed years as he got another double ton in the Caribbean in 1997, this time in a Test match at Port-of-Spain. His most consistent series was against Australia at home in 1997-98 when he and Sachin Tendulkar set about Shane Warne. In five innings Sidhu made 62, 64, 97, 74, and 44. But when he failed in two Tests in New Zealand, the knives were out and although Sidhu may not have known it at the time, it was the last time he would play for India.